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History's Headlines: Flight to freedom

The Lehigh County Historical Society’s assistant director and chief curator Jill Youngken is full of ideas. And one that excites her a great deal is the event celebrating the Underground Railroad that the society is going to be holding on February 24. Entitled “Voices of the Underground Railroad,” it will begin at 1:00pm. Admission will be free for LCHS members, $8 for non-member adults, and $3 for children.

“The Underground Railroad is a part reality and part legend,” she said recently.  “We want to try a separate the reality from the legend,” Youngken notes. “It was not just whites, but whites, blacks, the enslaved and the free working together. They could have been beaten and even killed for doing what they did. We will have a lecture to inform people about exactly what the Underground Railroad was and how it worked, and we will have singers offering a live performance of African-American spirituals. Even people who know about the Underground Railroad don’t have any idea that it went through Pennsylvania and in the Lehigh Valley. It is part of our way to honoring Black History Month.”

How people felt about the Underground Railroad in the 1840s and 50s depended, at least in part, on what part of the country they lived. To many in the south it was an escape route for their property to be stolen from them. The Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law, deemed that helping slaves escape from their masters was a crime. Those who didn’t follow the law faced heavy fines and jail terms.

To the north, especially in New England, there were those who believed it was a part of God’s plan to help enslaved African-Americans to freedom, who they saw not as property but as fellow humans who were being unjustly held by an unholy system that was a stain on the true American creed that all men were created equal. The higher law of God in their minds commanded that they be aided, despite what any federal statute said.

But there were a lot of parts of the country where it was not that simple. The Lehigh Valley and northeastern Pennsylvania in general reflected this.

The Underground Railroad, a network of black and white, free and enslaved individuals who hid slaves fleeing to freedom, was born in the late 1700’s as a response to the first Fugitive Slave Act. The chief destination of the slaves was Canada, as slavery was illegal there. But Mexico was another destination. Florida was another until 1821 when it went from Spanish to American control. The Seminole Indian tribes had been able to hide the slaves before that.

But it was not until the 1830s that it was given that name, probably because railroads were not built in America until the 1830s. It was not actually a railroad, and at least not much of it underground. The term is more like that applied to the resistance to the Nazis in occupied Europe during World War II. 

Pennsylvania’s attitude toward the Underground Railroad was like that in most of the country and was rooted in its history with slavery. There were probably somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 enslaved black people in the colony at the time of the revolution. African-Americans were being sold on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love as late as 1775. Allentown founder William Allen was doing so there in the 1730s but by the 1750s had abandoned it and at his death in 1780 freed his few remaining slaves in his will. His son James Allen owned three slaves at his home in Trout Hall: Henry, Francis and Sampson, his coachman, and gave them their freedom at his death in 1778, being “ever persuaded” as he wrote in his will, “of the injustice of slavery.”

Almost all of the slaves in Pennsylvania were house servants. Benjamin Franklin for example owned a married couple who were his house servants. He included a codicil in his will saying they would be free at his death. But they ended up dying long before he did. Franklin became involved in the state’s early anti-slavery movement after their deaths.  Most had been brought to Pennsylvania from the West Indies rather than from Africa. Supposedly the reason was that they spoke better English.

In 1776 Pennsylvania banned the slave trade. But attempts to abolish slavery entirely were blocked. One source claims that the chief opposition came from ministers who used the one or two slaves they owned for house work. Since they got paid little, the ministers are said to have felt that buying an individual slave was cheaper then hiring help. The result was the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780. Slaves that were slaves when the act was passed would be slaves until their deaths. The children of slaves born after that date would be free when they were 28. And their children in turn would be free at birth. The last elderly slaves in Pennsylvania died in the 1847s, just 14 years before the start of the Civil War.

Many in Pennsylvania, the majority of the white population, were not opposed to slavery, particularly because they feared attempts to abolish it would lead to the break-up of the Union. In 1837 in Philadelphia a group of citizens, as the police and fire department stood by, burned to the ground Pennsylvania Hall, a building that local anti-slavery groups used to hold meetings. Benjamin Franklin Trexler, one of Allentown’s leading citizens and editor of the Independent Republican newspaper, scoffed openly in an editorial in the 1850s when he heard that Abraham Lincoln had said the United States could not exist half slave and half free. Hadn’t America existed that way since independence?

The Underground Railroad had a few “stations” in the Lehigh Valley. Bethlehem’s Moravians were part of the movement. According to William J. Switala’s 2001 book “Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania,” they would sometimes buy a slave, set them free and then give them a job so that they could make a living as a freed man or woman. From Bethlehem the fugitives could head north to Wilkes-Barre. There were also stations on the road from Bethlehem to Easton and then on into New Jersey. Others seeking freedom headed north to Stroudsburg or followed the bank of the Lehigh River north to Palmerton.

Chief among the stations was in what was then a farm in Quakertown. The property belonged to a Quaker named Richard Moore and it is now 421 S. Main Street. Their family roots in the area went deep, going back to Mordecai Moore, a doctor who came to America in the early 18th century. Richard Moore was born in 1793 in Montgomery County and came to Bucks County in 1816. He ran a school for several years but later took up farming with his son, and had small pottery making business. According to the 1887 History of Bucks County, Moore helped more enslaved people to flee to Canada than anybody else in the county. Working with Moore on the Underground Railroad was an escaped, formerly enslaved young man names Bill Budd. He fled the south but once he got to Bucks County went to work at  Moore’s pottery business.  It was also Budd’s task to smuggle, under the straw and pottery, human cargo headed north as well.

Perhaps the most recent work on the Underground Railroad and African Americans in eastern Pennsylvania was published last year. Entitled “Embattled Freedom,” it was written by Jim Remsen, former religion editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is about the small African-American community known as Colored Hill, which was within the town of Waverly, Pennsylvania, north of Wilkes-Barre, Remsen’s hometown where he grew up in the 1950s.

Remsen tells the story of a small group of blacks and anti-slavery whites who were active with the Underground Railroad in a Waverly that was largely not in sympathy with their cause at all and in some cases violently opposed them. They would not be cowed. When the Civil War came along, some among the black population of Waverly (once they were allowed to), eagerly signed up for the Union Army.

With the end of the war, except as a footnote, the Underground Railroad seemed to disappear from history. But in 1961 a historian named Larry Gara wrote a groundbreaking book called “Liberty Line,” which sparked renewed interest in the subject. It pointed out that it was not just whites but blacks like Harriet Tubman who helped run the Underground Railroad. At least in part due to Gara’s research today, there are many books on the subject.

Federal legislation passed in the 1990s encourages the study and preservation of its sites. The Underground Railroad is no longer forgotten.

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