Our mission is to educate the community about the extraordinary life and times of an enslaved Black woman from New York named Elizabeth, or Liss. Her bold and daring struggle for freedom introduces a new way of understanding the American founding through the eyes of a woman of color.
Liss lived in Oyster Bay, New York during the time of America's founding and was enslaved by the Townsend family, whose son Robert became George Washington's lead spy in Manhattan during the Revolutionary War.
In 1778 the Townsend home became the headquarters of a British commander and early abolitionist named Col. John Graves Simcoe and during his stay Liss met his friend, the British spymaster, John André. Simcoe helped Liss to escape in 1779, but she was re-enslaved in New York City by another British officer.
During the war Liss had contact with Robert Townsend, aka "Culper Jr." who used invisible ink and spy codes to send intelligence reports to Washington as part of the Culper Spy Ring. When her British enslaver was going to evacuate at the war’s end, Liss appealed to Robert to help her stay in New York City.
After the war Liss was sold to a recently widowed woman who promised Robert she would not take Liss out of Manhattan. However, when the woman remarried, unbeknownst to Robert, Liss was sold south to Charleston, South Carolina and separated from her two-year-old son, who remained enslaved in New York City. In Charleston Liss was re-enslaved by a violent man who had been the instigator of the Boston Massacre of 1770.
After two years Robert, who had joined an early anti-slavery group called the New York Manumission Society, discovered what had happened to Liss. He brought her son to Oyster Bay and worked to bring Liss back to New York in hopes of finally helping her to become free.
Liss’s true story gives a fresh voice and a new perspective to the country's founding in New York, from the point of view of an enslaved Black woman seeking personal liberty in a country fighting for its own.
Although there were thousands of enslaved people of color in New York during Liss’s lifetime, very little evidence of their individual lives was recorded. A bill of sale with an enslaved person’s name, a description of a runaway, or the record of when a person was freed might be all that remains of an entire life. Many enslaved people lived and died without their name ever being written down. While the timeline below may seem long, it is a testament to how much has been discovered about the remarkable life of Liss.