Communications and Public Relations Intern
After writing my last two blog posts about the wage gap for women in the United States and President Obama’s latest gun control proposal, I decided it was time for a more uplifting and celebratory topic. I decided to extend Black History Month by researching the Underground Railroad in Western Pennsylvania. When I first learned about the Underground Railroad in elementary school, it seemed like the ultimate game of hide and seek. Tales of slaves using the stars as navigation, teaching each other songs with hidden messages, or looking for symbols on quilts drying on a line gives the whole ordeal a magical story-book quality. While all of those things were significant aspects of the Underground Railroad, it isn’t until you revisit the history of slavery that you start to think about how completely amazing it is that such an intricate system could exist. Considering that I can barely find a friend in a busy store without using my cell phone, it leaves me awestruck to think about how thousands of slaves successfully traveled North with nothing but the clothes on their backs, hounds at their heels, and the guidance of complete strangers.
Another amazing thing to consider is that these journeys took place in some of our hometowns. Indiana County, Pennsylvania was an integral part of the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves traveling from Virginia searching for solace in Canada. Blairsville, Center Township, and Diamondville are three areas with many well-known stops along the Underground Railroad. The Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, along with the help of Dr. Chris Catalfamo, Kathleen Werner, Sonya Stewart, and Dr. Veronica Toombs-Watson, has spent a lot of time unearthing accounts that Conductors (that is, abolitionists who sheltered and guided runaway slaves farther North) have left behind. The following account that took place in Blairsville exemplifies the intricate teamwork that was the foundation for the Underground Railroad’s success:
Four to six fugitives were sighted on a hill facing town. At dark, they were moved to Jimmie Hamilton’s barn, one mile distant, where they were fed and sheltered. At 11pm, Sheriff James Taylor arrived at the home of the writer, breathless and trembling to announce that six to eight slave-catchers were in town and planning to raid the Hamilton barn. The writer left immediately and aroused James M. Hart. He and Hart took a circuitous route to the home of David Myers. Myers piloted them through the woods and brush to Jimmie Hamilton’s place. They awakened the fugitives and in a few minutes “the train” was under headway, “Conductor” Myers in charge, and passing laboriously but steadily through ravines and over rocks, fallen logs and other obstructions, was brought to a standstill at the house of Conductor Jacob Myers. Here they were safely secreted for several days, until the immediate danger was past. Then were taken in charge by John Jones and the Sutors [John and Alexander Sutor near Marion Center] and then by John Ewing near Georgeville. Meanwhile the slave-catchers arrived at Jimmie Hamilton’s barn 30 minutes too late. (Indiana County Underground Railroad Project)
In addition to Indiana County, Arthursville in Pittsburgh, which is now known as the Hill District, was also an influential area in the Underground Railroad. In an article from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Ervin Dyer explores how Arthursville was unique because it was a racially intermingled town with a large Black population including both upper class business owners and middle class laborers. One well-known local physician of Arthursville was Martin Delany, also known as “the father of Black nationalism” and one of the first Black men to get accepted into Harvard Medical School. This educated and hardworking Black community propelled the area into abolitionist social activism. Slave-catchers avoided Arthursville because of how hard it was to crack the Underground Railroad system in an urban setting. Despite the sheer number of Blacks in the area, the importance of church within this community also helped the Underground Railroad become a success. Community organizers used church services to promote the zeal of education and anti-slavery beliefs, and religious faith also attracted many white supporters to the cause. In addition, the church acted as a key social network, because if a slave-catcher did show up, news would spread quickly and the runaways could be secured.
Unfortunately, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 forced many Black Conductors in Arthursville to end their involvement in the Underground Railroad. Fear increased once stories were spread about free Northern Blacks getting captured and forced south. As a result, many free Black residents of Arthursville were forced to abandon their posts as Conductors and migrate to Canada to avoid unfair persecution. Luckily, there were still some Western Pennsylvanians who were able to keep the Underground Railroad running. Two successful physicians, Francis Julius LeMoyne and his father John Julius LeMoyne, owned a number of properties in Washington County, Pennsylvania that they used to harbor slave fugitives. The LeMoyne House, located at 49 East Maiden Street in downtown Washington, was the first National Historic Landmark of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Large houses like these owned by influential members of society (who were also abolitionists) were key components of the Underground Railroad due to their many available hiding places and the privacy and respect given to the revered homeowners.
Having Underground Railroad sites so close to home gives me a sense of pride. The strength of the individuals who undertook such treacherous journeys and the bravery of those who helped along the way epitomizes the truest form of acting for social justice. Lives were put on the line for both railroad travelers and Conductors, but through their perseverance, hundreds of thousands of slaves escaped to freedom.