Underground Railroad’s Relevance to Us Today

The Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania was the topic for my master’s thesis at Indiana University South Bend. This blog is part of my creative project utilizing original photographs and revealing information and reflections on this research.

What follows are blogs about individuals, myths, cemeteries, houses and other buildings. But those were just bits and pieces of whole picture of the Underground Railroad.

Fergus Bordewich’s (2007) New York Times article, captures the larger meaning and enduring lesson of the Underground Railroad. He writes:

The larger importance of the Underground Railroad lies not in the fanciful legends, but in the diverse history of the men and women, black and white, who made it work and in the far-reaching political and moral consequences of what they did.¹

His last paragraph resonated with me:

…the Underground Railroad still has something to teach: that every individual, no matter how humble, can make a difference in the world, and that the importance of one’s life lies not in money or celebrity, but in doing the right thing, even in silence or secrecy, and without reward.²

Even though the impetus for this project was the family lore that my grandfather’s house in Roscoe, Pennsylvania (Latta stone house), was a stop on the Underground Railroad, I now doubt the accuracy of that lore.

I want to believe my ancestors and whoever lived in the house believed in the freedom of fugitive slaves. Maybe they helped, maybe they didn’t have the opportunity.

Maybe identifying the house as part of the Underground Railroad helped them convey to society what they believed, but were apprehensive to vocalize.

¹ Fergus Bordewich, “History’s Tangled Threads.” NY Times Opinion Page. New York Times, February 2, 2007, accessed March 27, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/02/opinion/02bordewich.html?_r=2&e%20x=1171083600&en=2cf8369299cdf9e2&ei=5070&emc=eta1.

² Ibid.

Published in: on April 29, 2011 at 10:46 am  Comments (3)  

Fugitive Slave Act / Compromise of 1850

This is the law the fugitive slaves and those that were part of the Underground Railroad (or those that just helped) had to contend with in their quest of freedom for the slaves. Wording of the act follows.

BE IT enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the persons who have been, or may hereafter be, appointed commissioners, in virtue of any act of Congress, by the Circuit Courts of the United States, and Who, in consequence of such appointment, are authorized to exercise the powers that any justice of the peace, or other magistrate of any of the United States, may exercise in respect to offenders for any crime or offense against the United States, by arresting, imprisoning, or bailing the same under and by the virtue of the thirty-third section of the act of the twenty-fourth of September seventeen hundred and eighty-nine, entitled “An Act to establish the judicial courts of the United States” shall be, and are hereby, authorized and required to exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the Superior Court of each organized Territory of the United States shall have the same power to appoint commissioners to take acknowledgments of bail and affidavits, and to take depositions of witnesses in civil causes, which is now possessed by the Circuit Court of the United States; and all commissioners who shall hereafter be appointed for such purposes by the Superior Court of any organized Territory of the United States, shall possess all the powers, and exercise all the duties, conferred by law upon the commissioners appointed by the Circuit Courts of the United States for similar purposes, and shall moreover exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the Circuit Courts of the United States shall from time to time enlarge the number of the commissioners, with a view to afford reasonable facilities to reclaim fugitives from labor, and to the prompt discharge of the duties imposed by this act.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the commissioners above named shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the judges of the Circuit and District Courts of the United States, in their respective circuits and districts within the several States, and the judges of the Superior Courts of the Territories, severally and collectively, in term-time and vacation; shall grant certificates to such claimants, upon satisfactory proof being made, with authority to make and remove such fugitives from service or labor, under the restrictions herein contained, to the State or Territory from which such persons may have escaped or fled.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars, to the use of such claimant, on the motion of such claimant, by the Circuit or District Court for the district of such marshal; and after arrest of such fugitive, by such marshal or his deputy, or whilst at any time in his custody under the provisions of this act, should such fugitive escape, whether with or without the assent of such marshal or his deputy, such marshal shall be liable, on his official bond, to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant, for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive in the State, Territory, or District whence he escaped: and the better to enable the said commissioners, when thus appointed, to execute their duties faithfully and efficiently, in conformity with the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and of this act, they are hereby authorized and empowered, within their counties respectively, to appoint, in writing under their hands, any one or more suitable persons, from time to time, to execute all such warrants and other process as may be issued by them in the lawful performance of their respective duties; with authority to such commissioners, or the persons to be appointed by them, to execute process as aforesaid, to summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus of the proper county, when necessary to ensure a faithful observance of the clause of the Constitution referred to, in conformity with the provisions of this act; and all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required, as aforesaid, for that purpose; and said warrants shall run, and be executed by said officers, any where in the State within which they are issued.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That when a person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the United States, ha: heretofore or shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the person or persons to whom such service 01 labor may be due, or his, her, or their agent or attorney, duly authorized, by power of attorney, in writing, acknowledged and certified under the seal of some legal officer or court of the State or Territory in which the same may be executed, may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person, either by procuring a warrant from some one of the courts, judges, or commissioners aforesaid, of the proper circuit, district, or county, for the apprehension of such fugitive from service or labor, or by seizing and arresting such fugitive, where the same can be done without process, and by taking, or causing such person to be taken, forthwith before such court, judge, or commissioner, whose duty it shall be to hear and determine the case of such claimant in a summary manner; and upon satisfactory proof being made, by deposition or affidavit, in writing, to be taken and certified by such court, judge, or commissioner, or by other satisfactory testimony, duly taken and certified by some court, magistrate, justice of the peace, or other legal officer authorized to administer an oath and take depositions under the laws of the State or Territory from which such person owing service or labor may have escaped, with a certificate of such magistracy or other authority, as aforesaid, with the seal of the proper court or officer thereto attached, which seal shall be sufficient to establish the competency of the proof, and with proof, also by affidavit, of the identity of the person whose service or labor is claimed to be due as aforesaid, that the person so arrested does in fact owe service or labor to the person or persons claiming him or her, in the State or Territory from which such fugitive may have escaped as aforesaid, and that said person escaped, to make out and deliver to such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, a certificate setting forth the substantial facts as to the service or labor due from such fugitive to the claimant, and of his or her escape from the State or Territory in which he or she was arrested, with authority to such claimant, or his or her agent or attorney, to use such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary, under the circumstances of the case, to take and remove such fugitive person back to the State or Territory whence he or she may have escaped as aforesaid. In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.

SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the district in which such offence may have been committed, or before the proper court of criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any one of the organized Territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to be recovered by action of debt, in any of the District or Territorial Courts aforesaid, within whose jurisdiction the said offence may have been committed.

Sec. 8. And be it further enacted, That the marshals, their deputies, and the clerks of the said District and Territorial Courts, shall be paid, for their services, the like fees as may be allowed for similar services in other cases; and where such services are rendered exclusively in the arrest, custody, and delivery of the fugitive to the claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or where such supposed fugitive may be discharged out of custody for the want of sufficient proof as aforesaid, then such fees are to be paid in whole by such claimant, his or her agent or attorney; and in all cases where the proceedings are before a commissioner, he shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where the proof shall not, in the opinion of such commissioner, warrant such certificate and delivery, inclusive of all services incident to such arrest and examination, to be paid, in either case, by the claimant, his or her agent or attorney. The person or persons authorized to execute the process to be issued by such commissioner for the arrest and detention of fugitives from service or labor as aforesaid, shall also be entitled to a fee of five dollars each for each person he or they may arrest, and take before any commissioner as aforesaid, at the instance and request of such claimant, with such other fees as may be deemed reasonable by such commissioner for such other additional services as may be necessarily performed by him or them; such as attending at the examination, keeping the fugitive in custody, and providing him with food and lodging during his detention, and until the final determination of such commissioners; and, in general, for performing such other duties as may be required by such claimant, his or her attorney or agent, or commissioner in the premises, such fees to be made up in conformity with the fees usually charged by the officers of the courts of justice within the proper district or county, as near as may be practicable, and paid by such claimants, their agents or attorneys, whether such supposed fugitives from service or labor be ordered to be delivered to such claimant by the final determination of such commissioner or not.

SEC. 9. And be it further enacted, That, upon affidavit made by the claimant of such fugitive, his agent or attorney, after such certificate has been issued, that he has reason to apprehend that such fugitive will be rescued by force from his or their possession before he can be taken beyond the limits of the State in which the arrest is made, it shall be the duty of the officer making the arrest to retain such fugitive in his custody, and to remove him to the State whence he fled, and there to deliver him to said claimant, his agent, or attorney. And to this end, the officer aforesaid is hereby authorized and required to employ so many persons as he may deem necessary to overcome such force, and to retain them in his service so long as circumstances may require. The said officer and his assistants, while so employed, to receive the same compensation, and to be allowed the same expenses, as are now allowed by law for transportation of criminals, to be certified by the judge of the district within which the arrest is made, and paid out of the treasury of the United States.

SEC. 10. And be it further enacted, That when any person held to service or labor in any State or Territory, or in the District of Columbia, shall escape therefrom, the party to whom such service or labor shall be due, his, her, or their agent or attorney, may apply to any court of record therein, or judge thereof in vacation, and make satisfactory proof to such court, or judge in vacation, of the escape aforesaid, and that the person escaping owed service or labor to such party. Whereupon the court shall cause a record to be made of the matters so proved, and also a general description of the person so escaping, with such convenient certainty as may be; and a transcript of such record, authenticated by the attestation of the clerk and of the seal of the said court, being produced in any other State, Territory, or district in which the person so escaping may be found, and being exhibited to any judge, commissioner, or other officer authorized by the law of the United States to cause persons escaping from service or labor to be delivered up, shall be held and taken to be full and conclusive evidence of the fact of escape, and that the service or labor of the person escaping is due to the party in such record mentioned. And upon the production by the said party of other and further evidence if necessary, either oral or by affidavit, in addition to what is contained in the said record of the identity of the person escaping, he or she shall be delivered up to the claimant. And the said court, commissioner, judge, or other person authorized by this act to grant certificates to claimants or fugitives, shall, upon the production of the record and other evidences aforesaid, grant to such claimant a certificate of his right to take any such person identified and proved to be owing service or labor as aforesaid, which certificate shall authorize such claimant to seize or arrest and transport such person to the State or Territory from which he escaped: Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be construed as requiring the production of a transcript of such record as evidence as aforesaid. But in its absence the claim shall be heard and determined upon other satisfactory proofs, competent in law.

Approved, September 18, 1850

Image, accessed November 16, 2011.

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 10:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Martin Delany remembered

Among my travels through southwestern Ohio (October 2010) I stopped at the cemetery where Martin Delany is buried, located in Wilberforce, Ohio. Although Delany was born in Virginia, he spent many years in Pittsburgh, PA advocating equality for his race.

In addition to his writing, medical practice, and traveling (see post – Father of Black Nationalism 4/3/11),

Martin Delany monument

Delany was the first black major in the Union Army.

Etching of Major Delany

US Veteran


Click on picture to enlarge

Delany's previous headstone - photo credit: Bennie J. McRae, Jr.

There are several websites as well as a book on Delany.

Robert S. Levine, Martin R. Delany A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Bennie J. McRae, Jr., Delany Monument dedication.  March 31, 2004, accessed April 6, 2011. http://www.bjmjr.net/delany/home.htm.

Jim Surkam, To Be More Than Equal – The Many Lives of Martin R. Delany. Ed. Jim Surkham. West Virginia Humanities Council and the George Washington Carver Institute, n.d., accessed April 6, 2011. http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/delany/home.htm.

Published in: on April 6, 2011 at 10:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Father of Black Nationalism

Martin R Delany

One  of the individuals I found on my search for people important in the Monongahela Valley area during the Underground Railroad era was Martin Robinson Delany. He was born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia) to a free black women (Pati) and a slave black man (Samuel) in 1812.

Delany, a proficient and prolific writer, founded the first African-American newspaper, The Mystery, in 1843 and was its editor until 1847. He joined Frederick Douglass as an editor and writer of the North Star for 18 months. When their philosophies on how the black man was to be integrated into society differed, they went their own ways.

While Douglass advocated for integration for the black man, Delany argued for self-help in the black community or for separation through emigration. Whereas Douglass wanted the black man to blend into society, Delaney’s radical pride in his race bristled white society.

~Frederick Douglass is to Martin Luther King Jr. as Martin Delany is to Malcolm X.

In response to Douglass’ 1853 Black Convention in Rochester, NY, Delany organized a Black Emigration Convention a year later in Cleveland, OH. Originally, Delany wanted African-Americans to emigrate to Central and/or South America, but later changed to Africa.

This emigration is not to be confused with the American Colonization Society. ACS wanted to ship free blacks to Africa and control the leadership of the colony. Delany wanted blacks to emigrate to Africa and control their own society.

Delany thought emigration to Africa would take away the laborers in the South affecting the economic climate. Since “more than three-fourths of the cotton used in the textile industries of England and France came from the American South,”¹ disrupting cotton production was a short-term goal to improve blacks’ living and working conditions. He felt that stopping work completely, and not organizing groups for better wages and conditions, would make plantation owners realize how important black people were to the farm’s profitability.

¹Dick Weeks,  Civil War Home. Ed. Dick Weeks, February 16, 2002, accessed April 6, 2011. http://www.civilwarhome.com/kingcotton.htm.

Photo – http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/25023?size=preview

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Published in: on April 3, 2011 at 9:44 pm  Comments (2)  

Quilt myth debunked

The quilt myth argues that quilts were used to help escaping slaves find their way to freedom by various blocks, or signals in the quilts. They were hung or displayed at safe houses so the fugitive slave would know it was alright to approach that house for help or directions to the next location. (see post Logistics of Quilts as Code, 3/5/11)

Many websites explain the pitfalls of this myth, but that does not stop the myth from continuing. A book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad was published in 2000 asserting that quilts were used to helped fleeing slaves.

Giles Wright, Jr. © Hoag Levins

Giles R. Wright, Jr., a renowned Africa-American scholar, offered a critique of the book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad to the Camden, New Jersey Historical Society in June 2001. He rejected “the central thesis of Hidden in Plain Viewthat quilts were used to send coded messages to UGRR participants.”¹ As he stated in his presentation…

1.       Neither of the co-authors is a black historian. In order to write knowledgeably about the UGRR, you must first be a student of the large black historical experience in which the story of the UGRR is located.

2.       Aside from the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel Williams, the book offers no documentation for its thesis, relying instead on sheer conjecture and speculation in its lack of fidelity to historical truth.

3.       Contrary to popular belief, the overall number of UGRR runaways was very small, a tiny fraction of the total slave population.

4.       Fugitive slaves coming out of South Carolina who used the Underground Railroad usually headed in a northeasterly direction and not towards Cleveland as Hidden in Plain View asserts.

5.       Not all UGRR participants engaged in making very detailed plans before their flight. Hidden in Plain View seems to assume that UGRR participants planned their escape over a considerable period of time that allowed them to learn the ten-point quilt code.

6.       We are never told in Hidden in Plain View who created and operated the encoded quilt system.²

Barbara Brackman

Another person debunking the myth is Barbara Brackman. A respected author and quilt historian, Brackman also debunks the myth that quilts were used as signals to fugitive slaves. She developed a fact sheet that supports that there is no historical evidence for quilts as code. Her site also offers a sermon from Ted Pack as a “summary of [the quilt myth] controversy.”

The Quilting in American website offers a good summary of the quilt myth and offers links to books by other debunkers including: Judy Anne Breneman, Leigh Fellner, and Kris Driessen.

So why does the quilt myth continue? I guess we want to believe the story is true. Perhaps it is like a good fiction book that makes us keep reading until the last page.

Who started the Latta stone house being a stop on the Underground Railroad? I’ll admit it was a good story growing up to imagine that part of history was tied to the house. But…

… faked history serves no one, especially when it buries important truths that have been hidden far too long.³ ~ Fergus Bordewich

Fergus Bordewich

Author Fergus Bordewich, wrote an opinion article for the New York Times in 2007 addressing myths regarding the Underground Railroad. He pointed out that while embellishments don’t diminish the act, untruths perpetuated discount the heroic acts of others that did help the Underground Railroad system work. For example, Harriett Tubman supposedly helped 300 slaves escape, the number was closer to 70.4 This embellishment hasn’t diminished Ms. Tubman’s role, but rather, distorted the facts. She is remembered much more than David Ruggles, who was “very active in anti-slavery organizations helping over 600 enslaved people, including Frederick Douglass, escape to freedom.”5

Bordewich wrote  Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America6 which is excellent. He also has a website and blog, as well as a great visual timeline of the Underground Railroad.

1Giles Wright, Jr. CRITIQUE: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Ed. Hoag Levins. Historic Camden County, 2001. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. http://www.historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews11_doc_01a.shtml.
2Wright, Jr., ibid.
3Bordewich, Fergus. “History’s Tangled Threads.” NY Times Opinion Page. New York Times, 2 Feb. 2007. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/02/opinion/02bordewich.html?_r=2&e%20x=1171083600&en=2cf8369299cdf9e2&ei=5070&emc=eta1.
4 Bordewich, ibid.
5The David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History & Underground Railroad Studies. Accessed 10 July 2011. http://www.davidrugglescenter.org/?page_id=7
6 Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005).
Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lionel Richie and cemeteries

I have always enjoyed Lionel Richie‘s music – from his time as a member of the Commodores to his career as a solo artist – his music always resonated to me. When I saw he was going to be on NBC’s  “Who Do You Think You Are?” I thought there might be a connection to my research.

About half way through the episode, Richie travels to a cemetery to look for his relative’s headstone.  It was late fall and many leaves were on the ground.  When his car pulled up and he saw how disheveled the grounds were, I could empathize immediately with him.

Last fall on my visit to the grave sites of people I’m researching, I found a church cemetery that is completely forgotten. This little cemetery is near where the Little Zion church once stood and is no longer readily visible. The church was important in organizing its members and assisting fugitive slaves. Noah West’s headstone (see previous blog) was pushed off its base and debris covered the stone. I had to brush away debris to find it and take a picture.

Noah West

Noah West

Another cemetery I visited was a black cemetery where the parents of a bishop of Wilberforce University* are buried.

Arnett's grave site

However, just next to this one is a cemetery similar to the one Lionel Richie found. It bothered me to see how nobody cared to maintain the area.

Black Cemetery - overgrown

Black Cemetery close up of headstone

Black Cemetery close up of headstone

Although Richie was looking for a relative and I was not, I thought how, during these individuals’ times, they were important. Now, they are completely forgotten. Their relatives in the 21st century do not know about them, their activities or the importance of those activities. This is just like Richie not knowing how instrumental his great-grandfather was to African-Americans.

I think again about how we are but a speck of dust in the grand scheme of things. I guess it doesn’t matter what happens after I die. It is the now that should concern me. Have I lived up to my potential? Have I treated others fairly? With kindness? My “impact” shouldn’t be remembered on a head stone, but in the actions I take every day.

*Founded in 1856, Wilberforce University can trace its origin to a period of history before the Civil War, when the Ohio Underground Railroad was established as a means of escape for all those blacks who sought their freedom in the North from the yoke of slavery, one of the destination points of this railroad became Wilberforce University. As the Underground Railroad provided a route from physical bondage, the University was formed to provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance.¹

¹Wilberforce University, accessed March 13, 2011. http://www.wilberforce.edu/welcome/history.html.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 9:14 pm  Comments (2)  

Logistics of Quilts as Codes

As I researched individuals and information on the Underground Railroad, I began to think just how quilts could be used as code for the fugitive slave. The logistics seemed implausible to me. I understand how the slaves could be taught to look for symbols, but how were they to know which path to take? Which stream to cross? Which person to stop?

Consider that individuals involved with the Underground Railroad were not publicly known. Nor were they identified as conductors. No names were written down. “Safe” houses did not have signs on them like motels do today. Rarely did anyone connected with the Underground Railroad know what lay beyond the next stop. No one involved had a “map” of the houses considered safe three stops ahead. People perhaps knew (or only wanted to know) the place before and the place after them.

What is to say that a safe house today will be one next month? Next year? Also, lest not forget – it was difficult terrain to travel! Many of the routes were over mountains and wooded forests.

Now consider being on the run. Which direction do you take? North, guided by the North Star. But who came back to the plantation to tell you the path(s) to take to freedom (besides Harriet Tubman?) The paths were not like roads we have today. The fugitive slave would travel through woods, not the path where horses, wagons and people traveled. Travel would be at night.

What about the weather? Many slaves took off with barely anything else but what they were wearing. (Maybe a quilt was taken to stay warm.) How do you tell a house is “safe?” Is a quilt on the fence? Which block on the quilt told you to proceed or skip this house? What about winter? Would quilts be hung “out to dry” or to “air out” when the temperatures were cold? Would that not be a signal that something is going on at that house? What about when it snowed?

I keep coming back to the logistics and the practicality of using quilts as a code. When I researched what others were saying whether these quilts could be used as code, there was consensus, more often than not, that this was more myth than fact. Jacqueline Tobin and Dr. Raymond Dobard’s book, Hidden in Plain View,¹ was oral history from a family about quilts being used as signals to help fugitive slaves find and navigate to freedom using the Underground Railroad. Ozella McDaniel Williams, a slave descendant, living in South Carolina, told this information to Tobin as Williams’ family had told her. Ms. Williams’ family lore contends the slaves memorized the various blocks as a code. Since slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write, the only way to find freedom on the Underground Railroad was to look for these quilts.

In rebutting Ms. Williams’ claim that this was family history, Kris Driessen, an accomplished quilt maker, quilt historian, quilting teacher, author, researcher, and lecturer from New York points out, “the code must have passed through nine generations of extreme societal change, a daunting task even for a culture who relied on oral history…Where the slaves found the time to make these quilts, or what fabric they used, was never explained.”² She also notes there were seventeen quilts, each containing a block with a message. My question, in addition to Driessen’s is, how did these quilts make it to “safe” houses/families?

The myth indicates that a quilt on the fence rail was to signal the fugitive slave it is all right to stop here. How did the “safe” house know when a slave would just happen to be in the area? It was not like a bus terminal where a schedule was kept! Did they keep a quilt on the fence at all times? Also, what would stop pro-slavery people from throwing quilts on their fence? What stopped pro-slavery people from learning about this open signal?

Logistics. The planning and implementation of a complex task. Thinking about the logistics of how quilts as code could be implemented makes me believe this is a myth.

Again, oral family history played a significant role in Ms. Williams’ perpetuating this story. I am quite sure to her dying days she believed it was true. Just like my family’s oral history, regarding the Latta Stone house being part of the Underground Railroad. It was passed down nearly seven generations. Moreover, our societal change was not as great as Ms. Williams. Nor was the house’s history secretive.

¹Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, PhD.  Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. (New York, N.Y First Anchor Books, 2000).

²Kris Driessen, accessed March 3, 2011. http://www.quilthistory.com/ugrrquilts.htm.

Published in: on March 5, 2011 at 8:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Time Passages

For the past several weeks, months really, I have been researching figures that played an important part of history in western Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad. They are long forgotten by most in their communities because of time passing.

As I transcribed my audio notes, I kept thinking about the people who partook in the Underground Railroad in this area. Most were not recognized, with fewer immortalized. As I kept thinking about these various people, Al Stewart’s song “Time Passages” kept playing through my mind. I read the lyrics and was surprised at how close their meaning was relating to my research.

…I felt the beat of my mind go
Drifting into time passages
Years falling in the fading light
Time passages…¹

I visited several cemeteries in this search about those that played a part of the Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania. Two tombstones continue to disturb me. One was of Noah West. He was part of the Little Zion African Methodist Episcopal church, a leader in fact. According to the history book by Boyd Crumine

…Little Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, situated in West Pike Run township, was organized in 1844, under the ministration of Rev. Augustus R. Green… In that year the society purchased a building lot of Mrs. Mary Lewis and her son Charles, and upon it they erected a small log house and gave it the name of Little Zion Church…The present membership is divided into two classes. The first class, having Abraham H. Wallace for leader, has fourteen members. Class No. 2 has also fourteen members, with Noah West as class-leader.²

However, when I visited West’s grave site, I found the head stone was knocked off its pedestal, weeds and leaves entwining it. It was hidden, forgotten. Time passed in several ways for him.

Noah West tombstone

Noah West

Noah West

The other headstone that stands out in memory is that of Reverend William Ralph. Located in Monongahela Cemetery, it is barely legible. The only way I knew it was his was because I talked with the caretaker in the office and he produced a ledger that identified Rev. Ralph’s plot.

William Ralph headstone

William Ralph headstone - close up

There’s something back here that you left behind
Oh time passages…¹

This quest to find these individuals provoked me to wonder how people in the next 200 years will find individuals that made contributions to the civil rights movement, to the desegregation in the south as well as other types of assistance to make the world more humane. I am sure Martin Luther King’s memorial, a national historic site, will stand for a long time. However, what about others…others that were instrumental, but played lesser roles? How long before their tombstones become illegible? How long before their contributions are forgotten?

…Hear the echoes and feel yourself starting to turn
Don’t know why you should feel
That there’s something to learn…¹

UPDATE: This song reminds us just how important it is to document events and people as to not forget those that have helped us be they big names or just the average man/woman.

¹Al Stewart, and Peter White. Time Passages. (New York: Dick James Music, Inc., 1978), accessed February 18. 2011. http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/a/al_stewart/time_passages.html.

²Boyd Crumrine, History of Washington County, Pennsylvania with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. (Philadelphia: L. H. Leverts & Co., 1882), accessed February 18, 2011. http://www.chartiers.com/crumrine/twp-wpikerun.html. Transcribed by Helen S. Durbin of Greene Co., PA in March 1998. Published in March 1998 on the Washington County, PA USGenWeb pages at http://www.chartiers.com.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 6:17 pm  Comments (2)  

New connection, new insights to California, PA UGRR site

California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed~ Ron Paglia

In January I received on email from a gentleman, Ron Paglia, who was researching an individual from my family, namely my great-aunt Dee Dee (Mary Margaret Chester) and her connection to the Stone House Players.

Miss Chester was in to the dramatics and created a group called the Stone House Players. Mr. Paglia was researching an individual (Sally Cairns) who was part of the group. He was made aware of my connection and me to Miss Chester through the California Area Historical Society. (I had visited there several times.) They gave him my email address as well as my blog/research address on the Underground Railroad in the area.

After conversing via email, we spoke on January 20th. I was able to give him several reference points regarding his research, but since I was only 10 years old when Dee Dee died, I suggested he speak with my older sister, Diane. She lived at the Latta Stone house with our great-aunt and even attended elementary school for a few years in Roscoe, PA.

Shutterly House - Front and side

After we spoke, Mr. Paglia sent me his recollections on the Shutterly house at 800 Park Street in California, PA and its connection to the Underground Railroad. His recollections are as follows:

I believe you said you talked to a woman there during your visit in this area in 2009. James “Moe” Giovanardi lived there and he and I graduated from California Community High School in 1957. His sister, Janet Giovanardi, graduated in 1955. I’m not sure of whatever happened to Moe, although I do recall that the folks who organized our traditional class reunions lost track of him over the years. I did find references to a Joseph and Christina Giovanardi owning the home and living there in the 1970s and 1980s, but I did not know them.

As I mentioned on the home, I was in the home on several occasions, because Moe and I were friends. And I recall going into the basement of the home and seeing a section boarded up. The story was that the opening behind the boards led to a tunnel that was part of the Underground Railroad and led to a spot near the Monongahela River in West Brownsville (Washington County), just across the river from Brownsville (Fayette County). The story making the rounds in those years also alluded to the tunnel passing under a Boy Scout campsite just outside of California on property that now houses the Center In The Woods senior center and The Oaks independent housing complex just off Route 88 between California and Blainesburg.

As Boy Scouts, we often held meetings and outings there and even camped overnight at times. There were stories about “ghosts … in the ground below us” as we sat around a campfire at night. The legend also indicated that the slaves who used the tunnel “wound up in Brownsville” and made their way to other homes that were part of the Underground Railroad there. One of those homes supposedly was located just off-Broadway (street or avenue), which led to Route 40. I do recall that Moe Giovanardi had relatives who lived there (perhaps a cousin) and that we went there a few times. Moe was one of the few guys in California who had a car and he often asked me if I wanted to go for a ride.

Despite all of the stories surrounding the Giovanardi home being part of the Underground Railroad, I have never seen any documentation of that, nor have I ever talked to anyone in California who could verify it.

Other buildings in California as you no doubt know also were linked to the Underground Railroad, but like other towns in the Mon Valley, California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed, etc. Similar stories have evolved in Fayette City and Monongahela (Bethel AME Church).

Just like the Latta Stone House being connected to the Underground Railroad, many folklore just don’t pan out to be the truth. However, who are we, in the 21st century to say that perhaps the occupants of these homes didn’t direct, loan horses, or give water and or food to a fugitive slave or two?

Ron Paglia has over 54 years experience in the newspaper, public relations and freelance professions.

Uniontown, PA and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the legal holiday of Martin Luther King’s birthday is celebrated, I am reminded of the tie of Martin Luther King, Jr. to my research on the Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania.

AME Zion Church Uniontown, PA

When Pat Trimble took me to the AME Zion Church in Uniontown, the only connection I knew was that African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches were part of the Underground Railroad history. What I did not know was how significant this particular church was in relation to Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to civil rights.

AME Zion Church

AME Zion Church side view Uniontown, PA

Pat Trimble - standing where original church was located

The AME Zion congregation has owned this particular property since the 1850s. The current church, built in 1913, is the third church constructed on this spot. Reverend James Lawson, the minister in the 1920s, and his wife, had a son who grew up to be an influence on how Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the civil rights activities.

James M Lawson, Jr., was born in Uniontown, PA in 1928 and learned firsthand how ugly and cruel people could be to black individuals. In the fourth grade, after slapping a white boy in the face for the disparaging remarks made about Lawson’s race, James told his mother what he had done.

There must be a better way

However, Mrs. Lawson “did not answer with words but with a simple, profound gesture. She turned her back on young Jimmy. ‘Well Jimmy, what good did that do?’ were her first words. For the next few, heavy minutes, his mother gave him a “soliloquy” on his family, his faith, and his values. ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way,’ she ended. In that moment, Lawson decided to practice nonviolence.”¹

After studying satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance developed by Gandhi, Lawson entered Oberlin College in 1955 as a graduate student in Theology. There, Lawson was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. and later enrolled in Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. As a reverend, Lawson moved to Memphis, TN in 1962. Six years later, he asked Dr. King come to Memphis to give the famous Mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968 in support of the black sanitation workers’ strike. This was the day before King’s assassination.

“Martin Luther King, Jr., once called Rev. Lawson ‘the leading non-violence theorist in the world.’  He was at the forefront of the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s as the mentor and leader of students who conducted the sit-ins that integrated the lunch counters, libraries and voting booths of the South, as well as the Freedom Riders who helped end forced segregation on buses and trains.” ²

Lawson continues to speak out on civil liberties and human rights.

¹Joshua Ogaldez, “Reverend Lawson: Another World is Possible.” Associated Content by Yahoo!, October 16, 2010 accessed January 18, 2011 http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5883326/reverend_lawsonanother_world_is_possible.html?cat=75.

²ACLU. “Rev. James Lawson, Jr., Renowned Civil Rights Leader, to Chair ACLU’s National Advisory Council,” May 4, 2006, accessed January 18, 2011. http://www.aclu.org/organization-news-and-highlights/rev-james-lawson-jr-renowned-civil-rights-leader-chair-aclus-nation.

Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm  Comments (2)