By Dave Sutor
The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) _ William Roy Mock lives on his great-great-grandfather Benjamin Walker’s homestead, which served as an Underground Railroad stop in western Pennsylvania’s Bedford County.
Mock’s ancestor was among the thousands of individuals – guided by religious beliefs or simple moral outrage over slavery — who assisted freedom-seekers as they fled the South, secretly passing them through communities across Pennsylvania and the region.
And those who helped also risked much — from possible legal troubles to violent altercations — in assisting strangers on their flights to freedom.
“It’s you and God, and you’ve got to make a decision,” Mock said. “You better make the right one.”
“Western Pennsylvania was very strategic because it bordered the Northwest Territory and all those groups of free states in the north where slavery was not a part of the custom,” said Samuel Black, director of African American Programs at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. “Racism was. But slavery was not. So it doesn’t mean that you can run away from slavery in Virginia and make your way to Ohio and everything was fine. It was still a difficult time.”
Sitting around a wooden table inside a century-old building that has served as a meeting house and museum in Fishertown, Pennsylvania, a small group of Quakers and their guests spoke at length about the role their own Bedford County played in the Underground Railroad.
“With the Quakers, it’s referred to usually as the ‘inner light,’ ” said Mock, author of “The Last Station: Underground Railroad of Quaker Corner,” which provides a history of the UGRR in northwest Bedford County. “Other people refer to it as the ‘holy spirit.’ Myself, in a combat zone, was tied closely to the holy spirit.”
“The point is, it wasn’t just Quakers,” Mock continued. “There were other denominations involved in this. And even with the Quakers, just because they were Quakers, they didn’t say, ‘I’m going to participate.’ Oh no. There were members of the same family that did it. And members in the same family that didn’t. This goes with the secrecy also. There has to be something that you account to – God. This is what made this whole thing.”
This CNHI special report explores the history of the Underground Railroad in Fishertown and elsewhere across Pennsylvania – Johnstown, Blairsville, Pittsburgh, Erie, Meadville, New Castle, Mercer and Jamestown in the west; Newport, Shamokin, Lewisburg and other communities in the east – along with Cumberland, Maryland, to the south, and Ashtabula, Ohio, in the west.
‘That kind of courage’
Runaways were hidden under hay in barns, protected in secret rooms inside churches and residences, and transported under darkness of night.
Most were illiterate with little knowledge of the world outside of where they lived in bondage.
Their journeys were dangerous and frightening.
“You’ve got to figure, you have people who are enslaved living on farms, living in smaller plantations who may or may not have ever been off of that farm in their lives and they decide – whether it’s from abuse, whether they are going to be sold away from their family, whatever that catalyst is – they are going to take their lives into their own hands – it’s very empowering – and run and seek their own freedom,” said Denise Jennings-Doyle, a volunteer at the Blairsville Area Underground Railroad Museum.
“Meanwhile, they know that there are dogs trained to not only chase them, but to tear them apart,” Jennings-Doyle continued. “And they know that there’s a star that they have to follow to get north. But, along the way, they’re going to trust the people who look just like the people who’ve enslaved them, with only what they can carry with them. I don’t know if I have that kind of courage. I don’t know anyone who knows for certain that they have that kind of courage.”
Slaves had been seeking their liberation since the first captured Africans were brought to Great Britain’s North American colonies, specifically Virginia, 400 years ago in 1619.
Opposition to slavery existed since the earliest days of the colonies and nation. Then, in the early- to mid-19th century, the Underground Railroad developed to guide runaways to freedom in the North or Canada.
“Its greater significance is that it was organized,” Black said. “Before you had that type of organization, people escaping slavery was sort of an individual endeavor. You didn’t have a network of people assisting you. The whole thing was, people escaping slavery (early on) did not depend on the Underground Railroad. I like to call it resistance to slavery. They had different ways of resisting, and running away was probably the greatest, in terms of achieving freedom.”
Fugitive Slave Act
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made assisting runaway slaves even more dangerous than it had been previously.
It established six-month prison terms and $1,000 fines for anybody assisting a runaway slave and compelled officials to assist in apprehending freedom-seekers.
But communities still protected runaways.
For example, on April 1, 1858, Robert Stump of Virginia, bounty hunter Peter Heck of Uniontown and a deputy marshal for the western district of Pennsylvania entered Blairsville looking for Richard Newman, a free slave who had been living in the area for almost six years. They attempted to kidnap Newman, but a mob interceded to protect him.
The slave catchers were driven out of town.
“Heck reported that, as he ran down the towpath of the old canal, ‘a fleet-footed negro, with a size 13 boot, decided that my backside should assume the perpendicular instead of its normal horizontal, as if to say with every third step I took his boot would come in contact with my backside, as if to say “Get off the Earth, you cuss, “so I vowed never to lay my hand to slave catching again, so help me Andrew Jackson,’ which was a lie. He did it again,” Jennings-Doyle said.
Before the Fugitive Slave Act, some safe houses operated openly.
In Ashtabula, Col. William Hubbard’s house, known to slaves as “Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard,” harbored runaways, as they prepared for nighttime rides across Lake Erie into Canada, mostly aboard false-bottomed boats.
Hubbard was taken to court in 1839 for his work on the Underground Railroad, but avoided conviction.
“He had three arrest warrants,” said Hubbard House Underground Railroad Museum director Betsy English. “He could have lost his house if it actually went to court.”
The Hubbard House and other locations in Ashtabula were often the final stops for runaways before crossing into Canada. The city was part of approximately 3,000 miles of routes running in the state from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.
Crossing the Mason-Dixon
Cumberland, Maryland, was an important point for runaways to reach.
From there, only a few miles remained to be covered until they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, leaving behind slave-holding Maryland and entering free Pennsylvania, likely heading either east toward Harrisburg or west in the direction of Pittsburgh.
Many reportedly found a path to freedom in the tunnels under Emmanuel Parish of the Episcopal Church that were originally dug out by Col. George Washington and other soldiers as an escape route to nearby Fort Cumberland during the French and Indian War.
Rev. David Hillhouse Buel and Samuel Denson, an escaped teenage slave from Mississippi who was the sexton, operated an Underground Railroad station at the church, consecrated in 1851, that was funded, in part, by local community leader Samuel Semmes.
“Escaping slaves who had reached the Shanty Town section of Cumberland were instructed to hide out there and await a signal for their next move,” per the church’s website. “According to the oral history tradition, it was the sexton’s job to send them a message by ringing the church bell in a special coded way, and then bring them up the hill by the old fort’s earthwork, through an iron gate that led them through a passage to safety under the church.
“Oral history then tells us that they would rest a day beneath the church, receiving food and aid from Rev. Buel and other abolitionists and conspirators. When night fell again, they would go down the tunnel that led them through the basement of the Academy and into the basement of the rectory. Then they would go out the rectory cellar door, which in those days was in an unpopulated part of town, and meet up with the transportation that would take them across the Mason-Dixon Line, just 4 miles away, or up another route that would lead them to the Land of Freedom. In this story, the tunnels under Emmanuel Parish Church were the last Underground Railway stop in slave territory for many.”
‘Traveled at night …’
Emmanuel Parish of the Episcopal Church tunnels, Hubbard House, Gibson House/Mark Twain Manor in Jamestown, John Brown Tannery in Richmond Township and William Slick’s farm in Geistown, along with several Pittsburgh-area locations, including John Bathan Vashon’s barbershop and bathhouse and Thomas James Bigham’s house, are remembered as prominent stops on the Underground Railroad’s western path.
To the east, an old carriage house on the campus of Bucknell University – now designated with a historical marker – served as a safe haven from 1853 until the end of the Civil War.
George Bliss, a professor at what was then known as the University at Lewisburg, and his daughter, Lucy, provided shelter for the fugitives.
“So dangerous was it to harbor runaway slaves that she never knew whence they came or whither they went,” author Lewis E. Theiss wrote in the “Centennial History of Bucknell University.”
“Mostly these fugitives traveled at night, usually concealed under a load of hay or other material,” he wrote.
The Meadville home of Richard Henderson, an escaped slave, was said to have provided shelter for 500 runaways. He is described as “a leader in the local Underground Railroad network from the 1830s to the 1860s” and “a prominent member of the black community,” who helped to form Meadville’s Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1849, according to his biography at explorepahistory.com.
Meanwhile, there were about two dozen known conductors in the New Castle area, including Rev. Wells Bushnell, while other individuals, such as prominent shop owner Robert Wallace Clendenin, were believed to have given at least tacit approval to aiding escaped slaves.
Thomas Berry, the head of a free Black family, was not a recognized Underground Railroad conductor. But, shortly after arriving in New Castle in 1841, he built a house with a secret cellar on property owned by Joseph White. In the book “In Hot Pursuit: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, “written by Susan Linville and Elizabeth DiRisio, White’s son reportedly said, “The truth was, the station had been built for a special purpose, to secrete fugitive slaves hoping and trying to make the land of freedom, when pursued closely by their masters.”
Other properties were lesser known stations, now lost to history.
Similarly, some abolitionists operated in complete secrecy due to the dangerous nature of harboring runaway slaves, their deeds forgotten through time.
“Most of this history we don’t know anything about, which makes it more fascinating to me, even if you could never find out ultimately the whole story,” Bill Fine, a retired University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown sociology professor and historian, said.
Secret network, ‘dusty’ stories
Many abolitionists were outspoken public figures.
In Johnstown, Daniel Morrell, a Republican congressman and leader with the Cambria Iron Company, offered public support for abolitionism.
“He brought his Quaker philosophy to Cambria Iron,” said Barbara Zaborowski, Penn Highlands Community College’s dean for learning resources. “He held abolitionist meetings in the brick warehouse on Cambria Iron’s property because it’s in the newspaper. It’s in The Democrat. He held abolitionist meetings there.”
“When President Abraham Lincoln was up for election, (Morrell) basically looked to everybody in the mill and said, ‘You will go out and vote for Lincoln or you won’t have a job here on Monday’,” she added. “You could do it in 1860. You can’t do it today.”
In places such as Bedford, located right across the border from Maryland, the Underground Railroad operated in a low-key, tight-knit way, relying on secrecy among family members and close friends.
“This is very illicit activity,” Garnell Washington, a Quaker from Bedford County, said. “You weren’t allowed to talk about it.”
Because of the clandestine nature, few records were kept, thus providing a challenge for modern scholars in their attempts to piece together the history of the Underground Railroad, leaving no definitive way to describe the scope of the effort other than to say thousands of conductors helped thousands of freedom-seekers throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland.
Therefore, many of the stories are forever lost.
“I feel like, the positive energy and the positive organizing around the railroad that happened and the positive message and philosophy and beliefs we’ve built – even as a nation – around these stories have, over time, gotten dusty,” Garnell said. “And they get forgotten. I think part of it is that, over time, the people who are alive are farther away from the tension, the context of the railroad.”
And, while the lives of conductors and runaways are now part of history told through family stories, books, museums and markers, Susan Williams, a Quaker from the Dunnings Creek Friends Meeting, sees parallels between their actions in the 19th century and modern times.
“This courage that these people had, it goes on because I’m thinking about the resistance in Europe during World War Two. It is the same,” Williams said. “And now I’m thinking about Quaker groups that I know, working with other groups, who are helping asylum seekers and people coming from the south up to the United States and finding some stability and finding a way to go. There are groups who are waiting in bus stations all along the east in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia and on up, who are waiting for asylum seekers, who are just stuck on a bus with no money, nowhere to go, and they’re waiting for them.
“I know people personally who are doing that and are helping them, getting them food in the morning, helping them find their next connection and sending them on their way. And people are waiting for them there. It’s sort of an underground.”