Abolitionist Stories I
Originally published as an email on August 16, 2020
Friends of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center,
We hope you are all doing well in the daunting time of pandemic and social upheaval. We members of the Board of KURC have felt rather frustrated this year. After having finally secured a home/headquarters from which to create programs and greet visitors, we have been sidelined by coronavirus.
• No usual spring to autumn bus tours of this beautiful and historic area. In each of the previous years, we have introduced the rich local UGRR history to hundreds of persons.
• No travel to schools, historical societies, retirement homes, and other sites to make presentations and answer questions, where hundreds of others have learned that history each year.
• No Pop-up Museum displays as we have had over the last few years.
• No speakers and historians of national and regional significance to discuss issues of abolition and the underground railroad.
Frustrating! However, we are going to make some effort to sustain your interest in these matters and keep ourselves involved. Each week we will send out to our friends a few short essays, stories of the UGRR in the Kennett-area and perhaps beyond. Some will be reprints from pieces published 2013-15 in The Kennett Paper. Others pieces will be new. We hope you enjoy them.
However, these email blasts are not going to be accompanied by any requests for donations. They are just to let you know we of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center are still here, and still eager to fulfill our mission:
To preserve the heritage and engage the public about the historic abolitionists and freedom seekers of this area and beyond.
A “Station” with Rails Heading in All Directions
Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center
Quaker stationmasters of the Underground Railroad often had a delicate balancing act: protecting those who came to them for aid yet not overtly engaging in falsehoods. Last December this column explained how John Vickers told the truth “slowly and suspiciously,” and thereby foiled slave hunters in hot pursuit of their quarry. Another truthful but cunning stationmaster was Dr. Jacob Paxson of Norristown (shown below), who conducted railroad work in the 1840s-‘50s.
After the “riot” at Christiana on September 11, 1851, many of the black farmhands who had participated in the resistance fled to escape capture and prosecution by U.S. marshals. Four of the fugitives, including the leader of the resistance, William Parker, had made their way to Dr. Paxson’s home. They were then hidden for days in a pile of wood shavings at a nearby shop, owned by Samuel Lewis, a black carpenter. The town, meanwhile, was being closely watched by U.S. marshals.
At a clandestine meeting of local abolitionists, the problem was discussed. Dr. Paxson proposed a clever ruse. From Joseph Brody, who ran a stable, they acquired five wagons and teams of horses. They offered to pay, but Brody, sympathetic to the cause of the UGRR, said he was happy to do his part. That evening, the wagons, laden no doubt with suspicion-arousing materials, headed out. One was sent up a turnpike; another went down the same road; a third headed toward West Chester, while the fourth went in the direction of Downingtown. These earlier four wagons dispersed the vigilant marshals. Then Parker and his companions emerged from their shavings, having also shaved their beards and changed their clothes, and calmly walked out of Samuel Lewis’s shop to the home of William Lewis, perhaps a brother of the man who hid them. Although the nervous William got lost for a while, eventually the four safely arrived at Quakertown. From there they wended their way to Canada. The hapless marshals later pursued them but without success.
William Parker reached Buxton, a settlement in Ontario that was populated by American freedom-seekers, people who in fact attained their freedom. They became African-Canadian, a nationality they could more proudly claim. Now a free man, Parker learned to read and write. For a while he wrote for Frederick Douglass’s Rochester newspaper, North Star. He was later elected to office in Buxton and then to the local township council, supported by voters both black and white. Though far from perfect, Buxton highlighted the innate abilities of black persons who were given opportunities for success, as well as people’s capacity for racial amity.
Dr. Paxson, in the meantime, continued his work as a stationmaster for the Underground Railroad.
“To Agitate the Question... is a Breach of Good Faith”
Chris Densmore, Curator Emeritus, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College
It is now the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, an anniversary commemorated by exhibits, including the impressive exhibit at the Chester County Historical Society, reenactments, lectures and other events. The Underground Railroad and the Kennett area are an integral part of the sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War. The United States Constitution, written in 1787, recognized the legality of slavery in the states where it existed and required the return of “fugitives from labor” if they tried to escape to one of the free states of the North. Many people in both North and South understood that this was part of the “deal” that made the creation of the United States possible. Whether one liked or disliked the institution of slavery, the protection of slavery was in the Constitution, which was regarded as almost a sacred document.
In Kennett and vicinity abolitionists stood on one side of the question, not willing to recognize the legitimacy of slavery and willing to assist those trying to escape it. The other side included people that feared that the Underground Railroad antagonized the South and could end in division and civil war.
In 1839, the Governor of Pennsylvania, David Rittenhouse Porter [see above], stated, “To agitate the question anew, when it has
thus satisfactorily settled [by the US Constitution] is not only a breach of good faith to our brethren of the South; an unwarrantable interference with their domestic relations and institutions…” Plainly stated, the Governor of Pennsylvania
thought that anti-slavery organizations, anti-slavery publications and anti-slavery newspapers were subversive of the good order of the nation. The abolitionist felt that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was the higher law.
Who was the Governor so worried about? Why, the Kennett Anti-Slavery Society, and the sort of folk who have been appearing in this column. Who knew that a bunch of old Quaker farmers could be so frightening?