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.

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

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)