In November, 2023, Marie Poinan did a program at the Charlotte Library on the history of the Charlotte ferries and their operators. She caught my attention when she mentioned that one of the first ferry operators was Ralph Francis, a black man about whom little has been documented. I was intrigued – a person of color operating a boat at the port of Charlotte during the turbulent decade between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Civil War? Could he have been involved in the Underground Railroad? Since I was preparing a program on the UGRR(Underground Railroad), I started researching Ralph Francis.
For every well-known conductor and stationmaster such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, there were dozens more men and women who remain unknown or about whom there is little information. Out of necessity, secrecy was the very essence of the UGRR. Those who helped enslaved people on the run faced serious consequences if they were caught; they could be fined thousands of dollars and/or imprisoned for many years. Therefore, very few kept written records or any kind of documentation, making it difficult for historians to verify with any certainty the people involved in the network.
Between 1850 and the beginning of the Civil War, almost 150 enslaved people passed through the Rochester area each year on their way to Canada. Two of the “Railroad” lines led to Greece, either at Kelsey’s Landing near the lower falls or the port at the mouth of the Genesee River in Charlotte; at that time both were located in the Town of Greece. Ralph Francis had a hotel at Kelsey’s Landing and then a tavern at Charlotte during that time. Coincidence? Perhaps. However, Francis had a history of activism.
Born in New Jersey circa 1811, Francis was living in Rochester by 1840 and according to the 1850 census he lived on Greig Street (or Greig Ally) in the Third Ward, where the majority of free people of color resided. He was a barber and with Benjamin Cleggett operated Francis & Cleggett Barber Shop, one of several shops owned by abolitionists, both black and white, in the Reynolds Arcade. Frederick Douglass’ North Star office was across the street to the south and the Eagle Hotel, where people could get the stagecoach to Charlotte, across the street on the west.
In 1843 Francis helped Douglass organize a four-day conference on black suffrage in New York State and in 1846 he was a main speaker at a second conference. There were two letters to the editor published in the Daily Democrat in which he advocated for the right to vote for all black men. At that time free black men who owned $250 worth of property could vote in New York State; Ralph Francis easily qualified with holdings worth $2,000. In the early 1850s he worked to get Rochester’s city schools desegregated.
To my mind it makes sense that he was engaged in getting enslaved people to Canada. Canadian vessels had a major commercial presence at both Kelsey’s Landing and the Port of Charlotte. When his former business partner Cleggett died in 1917, his obituary in the Democrat & Chronicle stated that he was likely involved in the UGRR.
Francis disappeared from the Rochester landscape circa 1855. He was gone from Charlotte less than a year after opening his saloon there. Both of his parents and his nine-year-old nephew, all who resided with him, died in 1854. A bathhouse that he erected at the beach in July of 1854 was burned down by an arsonist in August. Marie Poinan used her genealogy expertise and found him living in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Was that arson a warning? Was someone about to turn him into the authorities for violating the Fugitive Slave Act, causing him to flee to Canada? We may never know, but I’ll keep looking, hoping to find out more about him.