Underground Railroad ran through Chesco
Runaway slaves sought freedom by traveling into southern end of county
When Americans held people as property, hundreds of slaves found freedom by traveling the Underground Railroad, along invisible tracks, through Longwood and Kennett in southern Chester County.
Until the Emancipation Proclamation, the Mason-Dixon Line separated Delaware and the South, where slavery was legal, and Pennsylvania to the North, a sometimes “free” state.
Slaves were often rescued by “conductors” along the Route 52 Corridor via a network of “stations.” Slaves walked mostly at night, hid in root cellars and false bottoms of wagons, while children were sometimes secreted away in pottery.
Former slave Isaac Mason escaped from Chestertown, Maryland, on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, to New Garden in 1847.
“No words can describe the joy and gratitude that filled the bosom of one who had … stepped from bondage into liberty, from darkness into light,” as attributed to Mason, according to literature supplied by the Kennett Underground Railroad Center.
Slaves first entered America in 1619. Organized abolitionists were more prevalent between 1800 and the 1860s. More than 20 families in Kennett and about 132 countywide were “agents” on the Underground Railroad, according to Bill Kashatus, former director of the Chester County Historical Society.
A network of hiding places or safe houses, and secret routes, were assisted by both black and white abolitionists, religious communities and other groups, according to the KURC Self-Guided Tour hand-
“Kennett Square is recognized as a crucial hub of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity,” reads the handout “… the relatively large free black population in Chester County — about 6,000 or 8 percent of the population — and the largest Quaker population in Pennsylvania made Kennett a desirable and relatively ‘easy’ destination.”
I recently took an auto tour in the Longwood Area to many sites where slaves raced for freedom. Loraine Lucas, board member with tour organizer KURC, showed me several spots where slaves hid from mercenary slave catchers who hoped to sell them back into slavery.
The tour started at the Longwood Progressive Meetinghouse, now the Brandywine Valley Tourist Center.
The 1853 meetinghouse was used by Quakers who had broken away or were disowned by their meetings.
Slaves probably did not shelter here, though superstars of the abolitionist and humanitarian movement often visited and spoke at the Longwood Meetinghouse, including William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass, according to the self-guided tour pamphlet.
The visitor center now hosts an interactive display concerning many aspects of the Brandywine Valley, including the Underground Railroad.
Susan Hamley, executive director of the Chester County Visitors and
Conference Bureau, talked about the exhibit and never-captured former slave Harriet Tubman and life along the “Trackless Trail.”
“It’s about people behind the whole story,” Hamley said. “Tubman was enslaved and got herself out while putting herself in danger so others could become free.”
Many times, Tubman led slaves on a 110-mile walking journey from the Eastern Shore to Wilmington, often carrying a gun. She also served as a Union nurse, cook, spy and armed guide during the Civil War, while there was a $40,000 price on her head.
On our tour we viewed a Tubman mural at South Willow Street in Kennett Square. Tubman is depicted as larger than life. The North Star, a guiding light for many, while a beacon leading slaves to freedom, is prominently displayed.
We saw houses where slaves hid, including the Eusebius Barnard House in Pocopson Township.
Near the house, Lucas pointed to a small grove of trees where slaves likely hid while slave catchers searched nearby.
On East Linden Street in Kennett Square, individual historical markers at many houses point out the dates of construction on one of Kennett Square’s first streets. Early on, the street was racially integrated, with the first house dating to around 1846. Seven houses remain from the time.
No local Longwood tour on the Underground Railroad would be complete without a look at the 1801 Marlboro Quaker Meetinghouse and graveyard.
The Marlboro Riot occurred
here and sparked tempers. Quakers, many who favored non-violence, called it a riot, while many of us would likely refer to it as a disagreement. A member wanted to talk politics during a meeting and others called in the local constable.
Not incidentally, a bench at the meetinghouse sits at the site of what Lucas described as “the most beautiful view in Chester County.”
Michele Sullivan, KURC board member, has confirmed that many conductors and stationmasters on the Underground Railroad were African American.
“Too often, during this time, African Americans were seen as less astute or intelligent by some,” she said.
Crossing the MasonDixon Line didn’t mean you were safe,” she said in the wake of a federal law, the Fugitive Slave Act Compromise of 1850, or what many referred to as the Bloodhound Law, making it illegal nationwide, even in free states, to harbor a slave.
The actual numbers are up for grabs (Quakers and others did not keep detailed records for obvious reasons) but at least 100,000 slaves escaped on the Underground Railroad, while about 4 million remained in bondage.
Slavery still exists, even in America. People are still held in bondage.
“There is human slavery now,” Sullivan said.
To even contemplate slavery is difficult.
“It just wipes me out,” Sullivan said. “To learn these things, I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck.”
The non-profit KURC focuses on education and outreach, with exhibits, Heritage Trail tours, both private year-round, and public during the warmer months, re-enactments and lectures.
You can purchase everything you’ll need for a self-guided tour of the Longwood/Kennett Area for $10 at the Brandywine Valley Tourist Information Center/Progressive Meetinghouse, located just outside the gate of Longwood Gardens.
You can also write to KURC, P.O. Box 202, Kennett Square PA 19348, or go to, www.kennettundergroundrr.org.
Bill Rettew Jr. is a Chester
Loraine Lucas, board member of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center, poses in front of Underground Railroad Station, the Eusebius Barnard House in Pocopson.
Harriet Turman is larger than life in Kennett Square.