Un­der­ground Rail­road ran through Ch­esco

Run­away slaves sought free­dom by trav­el­ing into south­ern end of county

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LOCAL NEWS - Bill Ret­tew Small Talk

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.

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