In 1835, Maryland slave Hamilton Elzie Waters purchased a “Certificate of Freedom” for himself and his mother, Lovey Waters. Waters was partially blind, likely the result of punishment inflicted by his owner for daring to read. Waters’s circuitous route to Erie came via Ithaca, New York where he met his wife Lucinda (then serving the household of the state’s governor), and then to Michigan, where they started their family with the birth of Elizabeth Waters in 1838. Arriving in Erie soon thereafter, Hamilton Waters worked as a town crier and lamplighter. Like many African Americans in this story, Hamilton and Lucinda focused on education as the foundation of their children’s success.
Hamilton Waters became an important agent in the clandestine network of brave local citizens known as the Underground Railroad. Working as a clothes cleaner and presser out of the barber shop of Robert and Albert Vosburgh, Waters helped ensure the makeover of runaways’ appearance. Water’s Underground Railroad responsibilities involved passing individuals to Frank Henry at a settlement on Four Mile Creek in Harborcreek, for the last leg of the journey over Lake Erie by skiff to Longwood, Ontario. In the decade and a half preceding the Civil War, Waters co-founded the Wesleyan Methodist Church in the Jerusalem section of the city, and the Benevolent United Equal Rights Society—both bravely providing sanctuary to fugitive slave. Working as the city lamplighter after the Civil War, Waters often had his grandson Harry T. Burleigh with him. Singing Negro spirituals of freedom from his enslaved plantation youth, Waters profoundly shaped the musical sensibilities of his grandson.