underground railroad in philadelphia 1830-1860

http://jbs.sagepub.com/ Journal of Black Studies http://jbs.sagepub.com/content/25/5/537 The online version of this article can be found at: DOI: 10.1177/002193479502500502 1995 25: 537 Journal of Black Studies Nilgun Anadolu Okur Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, 1830-1860 Published by: http://www.sagepublications.com can be found at: Journal of Black Studies Additional services and information for http://jbs.sagepub.com/cgi/alerts Email Alerts: http://jbs.sagepub.com/subscriptions Subscriptions: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsReprints.nav Reprints: http://www.sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav Permissions: http://jbs.sagepub.com/content/25/5/537.refs.html Citations: What is This? - May 1, 1995 Version of Record >> at TEMPLE UNIV on November 30, 2014 jbs.sagepub.com Downloaded from at TEMPLE UNIV on November 30, 2014 jbs.sagepub.com Downloaded from

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http://jbs.sagepub.com/Journal of Black Studies

http://jbs.sagepub.com/content/25/5/537The online version of this article can be found at:

 DOI: 10.1177/002193479502500502

1995 25: 537Journal of Black StudiesNilgun Anadolu Okur

Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, 1830-1860  

Published by:


can be found at:Journal of Black StudiesAdditional services and information for    

  http://jbs.sagepub.com/cgi/alertsEmail Alerts:






What is This? 

- May 1, 1995Version of Record >>

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Go down Moses! Way down in Egypt Land!And tell old PharaohTo let my people go.1

Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, has always been rec-ognized as the meeting ground in the nation’s incessant quest forracial equality, freedom, and liberation. A natural junction on theUnderground Railroad, the city was also known as an abolitionistcenter and had a large free Black community. From 1830 to 1860,the city witnessed unsurpassed activity as a great rail center andespecially as a busy port for ships traveling northward from theSouth, particularly from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware.

As the Underground Railroad gained more supporters amongWhites and the free Black community, increased numbers of run-aways headed toward Philadelphia either to stay or continue theirflight toward Canada. It is reported that before 1860, nearly 9,000runaways entered Philadelphia through various ways.

However, contradictions and bigotry also were parts of Philadel-phia’s involvement with abolition and underground railroad. WilliamWells Brown, the celebrated writer and dramatist who escapedslavery three times, had claimed that, in 1854, colorphobia wasmore rampant in Philadelphia than it was in the city of New York,

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is part of the series of slide-illustrated lecturesthat I presented during 1994-1995 at Atwater-Kent Museum, National ParkService, and Free Library in Philadelphia; Cedar Crest College, Allentown;Warren Historical Society, Warren; and Dauphin County Library in Harrisburg,sponsored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

JOURNAL OF BLACK STUDIES, Vol 25 No 5, May@ 1995 Sage Publications, Inc

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which was proslavery (Blockson, 1984). Spies and kidnappers whoprofited from bondaged people’s suffering were abound in mostcities of the nation during those days, and Philadelphia was noexception. Despite such drawbacks, the city offered more opportu-nities for hiding and escaping than did most cities on the East Coast.Moreover, there was a widespread feeling among the runaways thatreaching Philadelphia would almost guarantee their freedom, andthis was due partly to the general antislavery sentiment that famedthe city since early days. The presence of Bethel African MethodistEpiscopal Church, which hid many runaways since its estab-lishment in 1794, can be counted among the reasons that fosteredPhiladelphia’s rising Black population. Its popularity increased sorapidly that, in 1830, the first African American convention washeld at Bethel African Methodist Church with the participation of38 delegates from eight states, electing Richard Allen as theirpresident. Besides these activities, there were several other inci-dents that designated Philadelphia’s prominence as the proud in-itiator of many &dquo;firsts&dquo; in the nation’s history with respect to theabolitionist movement and the effectiveness of the UndergroundRailroad.

Changes that have come into effect in the social fabric of the cityand tough challenges taken by its citizens during those days are theissues that are addressed within the scope of this article. Human

portraits, desperate and strong-willed people; women, men, andchildren, their aspirations and obscure destinies; faith, hope, anddisappointment; betrayal, survival, and triumph are at the heart ofPhiladelphia’s involvement in the Underground Railroad saga.

Tracing the roots of Black resistance and resilience in Philadel-phia through its involvement in the Underground Railroad’s historymerges with the intellectual heritage of African American people.Because what gives this city its distinction in American history liesin the large space and arena of action that has been proudly occupiedby its African American citizens. Moreover, Pennsylvania hasowned the most fertile soil to breed freedom and democracy amongall other states since the beginning.As an Afrocentrist who is eager to &dquo;seek to uncover and use

codes, paradigms, symbols, motifs, myths and circles of discussion

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that reinforce the centrality of African ideals and values,&dquo; I havealso considered and employed, during this research, &dquo;cognitive andmaterial systems, direct and indirect data-gathering measures,myths, tape or video-recorded conversations&dquo; (Asante, 1990, p. 6)as well as old photographs, letters, maps, and a huge process of datacollecting to emphasize Philadelphia’s African American citizens’role in this heroic odyssey. A brief look into the social climate inPennsylvania, and respectively in Philadelphia, by the mid-19thcentury will set the stage for a better analysis of the UndergroundRailroad activities in Philadelphia.

The founders of Pennsylvania seem to have possessed a dichoto-mous blend of idealism and practicality. William Penn, a Puritan,believed in a &dquo;just God&dquo; and an &dquo;inner light&dquo; of guidance andmorality. He disliked war and named his government the &dquo;HolyExperiment,&dquo; proclaiming it a nonviolent brotherhood. Yet, duringhis lifetime, he was a slaveholder and received his land from hisfather’s warring for the British monarch. Much later in his life, afterhis return to England, Penn drew up a will that granted freedom tohis slaves upon his death. Another historical figure, BenjaminFranklin, not only owned slaves but advertised and sold them.Nevertheless, during his final days, he joined the abolitionists, ledthe antislavery movement, and even published their pamphlets. Oneof these pamphlets dated 1789 that publicly denounced slavery wassigned by Franklin himself during his presidency of the Pennsylva-nia Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

The most important factor that contributed to the rather earlyacceptance of emancipation in Pennsylvania (March 1, 1780)through legislative enactment was the ideological considerationsand the strong antislavery sentiment rather than the economicalfactors as had been believed to be the most important factor forquite a long time. Further, since the beginning, Pennsylvania hasrepresented a microcosm of American society. More than any otherstate, it has sheltered within its borders a great variety of nationali-ties, religions, and races that make up the American people. How-ever, contradictions and unfair treatment toward the Black popula-tion occurred from time to time. In 1838, &dquo;Free&dquo; Pennsylvaniapassed a new constitution that took away from Blacks the right to

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vote. However, during the Civil War, despite White resentmentagainst Black soldiers’ participation in the war effort, CampWilliam Penn in Montgomery County hosted hundreds of Blacksoldiers, and Pennsylvania residents applauded them when theymarched off to help save the Union (Afro-American Historical andCultural Museum, 1981, p. 17).As the nation grew, Pennsylvania meant even a better and safer

harbor for African Americans who left the South for jobs and betteraccommodation. The impact of the state’s large Quaker populationand widespread antislavery sentiment not only offered hope butaccommodated those who wanted to settle down in the state. For

example, Thomas Garrett, one of the Quaker leaders who was triedin 1848 with John Hunn, also a Quaker, on charges of harboringand aiding fugitives, first lived in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, andthen in Wilmington, Delaware. With regard to Pennsylvania’sBlack population, by 1830 it had risen to 38,000, almost 15,000 ofwhom were residents of Philadelphia County. During the followingyears, Philadelphia was to become recognized as the antebellum&dquo;capital&dquo; of the largest and wealthiest northern Black community.As a matter of fact, Philadelphia’s history presents a kaleido-

scope of democratic sentiments from the standpoint of activities,campaigns, and programs carried out by antislavery societies.

Throughout the operations of the Underground Railroad, concernedWhites joined hands with Blacks in assisting fugitives either toremain in Philadelphia or to continue north to Canada. Where theinvisible routes of the Underground Railroad merge with thosesymbolical &dquo;crossings&dquo; guarded solely by the willpower of bravevolunteers in Philadelphia is the gist of this article. It is probablydue to this deeply rooted antislavery sentiment and overwhelmingpressure around equal opportunity, franchisement, and civil rightsissues that the city rightfully deserved to be called the City ofBrotherly Love during the passage of time.A brief glance at Philadelphia’s history during the 1700s and

1800s displays the most colorful album of human portraits. Hostil-ity and hospitality existed side by side in Philadelphia. Abolitionistsconfronted harassment, White churches did not support fugitives,and occasional betrayals and kidnappings blurred the positive im-

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age created by abolitionists. However, due to the efforts of a smallbut effective group of individuals that included free Blacks, Blackchurches, and some Quakers, Philadelphia was able to maintain apassage to freedom. For example, it is recognized that some anti-slavery pioneers fought their battles in this city. Ralph Sandiford,an English immigrant who kept a shop near the Philadelphia auctionblock, published a tract called A Brief Examination of the Practiceof the Times, as early as 1729, attacking slavery and the slave trade.Because of the hostility he caused even among the Quakers, he wasforced to leave the city and the Society of Friends (Brown, 1970,p. 3). Benjamin Lay, who came to Philadelphia from Barbados in1731, was an eccentric figure who went from one Friends meetingto another testifying against slavery. On one occasion, he pierced abladder of red berry juice and sprinkled members of the assembledcongregation with &dquo;blood&dquo; as he denounced the sin of slaveholding. Atother times, he stood barefoot in the snow and lay down on the doorstepsof meetinghouses to dramatize his appeals. He even kidnapped aslaveholder’s child to demonstrate the sad effect of the separation ofBlack families. He once fasted for 40 days. In 1737, he publisheda pamphlet, All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage,Apostates Pretending to Lay Claim to the Pure and Holy ChristianReligion, in which he denounced slaveholding as &dquo;the greatest Sinin the World.&dquo; For this, he was disowned by the Yearly Meeting.It is remarkable that both this pamphlet and the one by Sandifordwere printed by Benjamin Franklin, although anonymously(Brown, 1970, p. 4).

The famed abolitionist John Brown’s path also led him to Phila-delphia. During the 1860s, he worked for the Underground Railroadand lived in the house of painter David Bustill Bowser. Althoughhis name is quoted most often in connection with the bloody attackon Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Brown was a well-known aboli-tionist in Pennsylvania. He lived in Crawford County for approxi-mately 10 years and planned his raid on the federal arsenal whilehe was living in Chambersburg (Afro-American Historical andCultural Museum, 1981, p. 76).

As the birthplace of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, Phila-delphia has witnessed numerous phenomenal incidents and has

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welcomed dozens of fearless men and women who had devotedtheir lives to the antislavery crusade. Meanwhile, operations of theUnderground Railroad and the people who contributed to the causeconstitute one of the most phenomenal legends in Philadelphia’shistory.

The Underground Railroad is the name given to a secret organi-zation that aimed to receive, conceal, and forward fugitives fromthe South to the North and Canada. As a matter of fact, mosthistorians agree that &dquo;out of the greater sympathy and willingnessto help runaways grew the beginnings of the Underground Railroadin the North&dquo; (Breyfogle, 1958, p. 166). The Underground Railroadwas a loosely connected system, relying for the most part on theconcern of those who participated to help other persons, in mostcases spontaneously. Due to the circumstances of enslavement, thefugitives were distrustful and rightfully suspicious of even otherfugitives (McGowan, 1977, p. 5).

Nevertheless, in some areas, there was organization, too. Thefirst reference to a systematic organized effort to aid and protectfugitives involves two letters of George Washington, written in1786. He speaks of a runaway owned by a certain Mr. Dalby ofAlexandria, who escaped to Philadelphia and &dquo;whom a society ofQuakers in the city, formed for such purposes, have attempted toliberate&dquo; (McGowan, 1977, p. 6). Between some parts of Maryland,Delaware, and Pennsylvania-particularly where Thomas Garrettand Harriet Tubman operated-there was some degree of organi-zation. An early historian of the Underground Railroad, Siebert(1967) gives a detailed account of how these routes were intercon-nected and operated:

Along the western shore of the Chesapeake runaways passed north-ward to Havre de Grace, where they usually crossed the Susquehan-nah and with others from the Eastern Shore ... to Lancaster andChester counties in Pennsylvania.... The routes developed in thethree regions just indicated formed three systems of the under-ground travel, the first of which may be called the western, thesecond the middle, and the third the eastern system. These systemscomprised, besides the main roads ... numerous side-tracks andbranches.... Their common goal was Phoenixville, the home ofElijah F. Pennypacker; from here fugitives were sent to Philadel-

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phia, Norristown, Quakertown, Reading and other stations as occa-sion required.... Many of these passed through the vigilance commit-tee connected with the anti-slavery office in Philadelphia. (p. 121)

As to the origins of the Underground Railroad (i.e., where itstarted first), a single place, town, city, or county is hard to name.However, in a seminal work by Robert Clemens Smedley titledHistory of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighbor-ing Counties of Pennsylvania, first published in 1883, the writerascribes the honor to Columbia, Pennsylvania, where some casesof kidnapping and shooting of fugitives that occurred in 1804 canbe counted as the beginnings of the Underground Railroad inPennsylvania. To illustrate the scene that culminated in a massabolitionist movement in Columbia, I need to go back into thetown’s history briefly.

The townspeople who were either Friends or their descendantswere antagonistic toward enslavement of Africans, and they re-sponded either by offering armed protection or by helping thefugitives escape. The town gradually came to be known as a safehaven where fugitives were transported through friendly handsfrom bondage to freedom attracting sympathizers and coloredpeople for settlement. Since 1726, Wright’s Ferry and its vicinitywere already inhabited by Quakers and Friends-namely JohnWright, Robert Barber, and Samuel Blunson-who had manumit-ted many Blacks. In 1787, Samuel Wright, grandson of JohnWright, laid out the town of Columbia. The lots were disposed ofby lottery and all sold to wealthy people from Bucks, Montgomery,and Chester counties and Philadelphia. The majority of these fami-lies were Quakers who bore a decided testimony against the holdingof human beings in enslavement (Smedley, 1968, p. 27).

It was in 1804 that General Thomas Boude, of Columbia, a

revolutionary officer of distinction, saved the mother of his servant,Stephen Smith, when the woman was being kidnapped from hisestate by her previous owner. That same year, a wealthy planter ofVirginia manumitted 56 people, who arrived to Columbia in wag-ons. A year later, in 1805, Sally Bell, a Friend from Virginia,emancipated about 75 to 100 people, who also settled in Columbia.Later, many others followed them. William Wright, of Columbia,

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was one of the first antislavery advocates who assisted fugitives atthe risk of his own life. He is known as dressing them in women’sclothes and sending them to Daniel Gibbons, about 6 miles east ofLancaster (Smedley, 1968, p. 29). The increased number of peoplearriving made it necessary to establish other reliable agencies,which very naturally shaped themselves by way of some sympa-thizing abolitionists in Adams, York, Lancaster, Chester, Montgomery,Berks, and Bucks counties to Phoenixville, Norristown, Quaker-town, Reading, Philadelphia, and other areas. The first two stationsnearest the Maryland line were Gettysburg and York. When thegroup that arrived in Gettysburg was too crowded, half were sentto Harrisburg and half to Columbia. The Columbia branch was usedchiefly, as it had better facilities for escape. Stations were estab-lished southward from Columbia toward the Maryland line andnorthward or eastward at distances about 10 miles apart (Smedley,1968, p. 30).

Because the rescue teams generally operated at night, the namethat connotates secrecy and great caution was quite appropriate forthe network. As a matter of fact, the naming came about as the resultof a mysterious incident that took place prior to 1831. This incidentwas reported by a Mr. Rush R. Sloane of Sandusky, Ohio, andoriginally appeared in the Firelands Pioneer in 1888 and later foundits way into Siebert’s seminal work on the Underground Railroad.Sloane reported that &dquo;in the year 1831 a fugitive named Tice Davidscame over the line and lived just back of Sandusky. He had comedirect from Ripley, Ohio, where he crossed the Ohio River&dquo; (quotedin Siebert, 1967, p. 45). Sloane’s account reveals that Davids’sKentucky owner followed him to Ripley so closely that the twoarrived at the Ohio River almost at the same time. Davids had noalternative but to swim, whereas his old owner searched for a skifffor some time and began to pursue him again, almost getting aholdof him. He saw Davids wading into shore and never saw him again.He searched everywhere including the town of Ripley, which wasin general an abolitionist town, but all his efforts were in vain:

Once on shore the master could not find him. No one had seen him;and after a long search ... the disappointed slave-owner went intoRipley, and when inquired of as to what had become of his slave,

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said ... he thought &dquo;the nigger must have gone off on an under-ground road.&dquo; (p. 45)

Over the years, the story was repeated with a good deal of amuse-ment, and the anecdote gave the name to the line. Another anecdoterefers to a story of the mysterious disappearance of fugitives &dquo;byan Underground Railroad somewhere&dquo; by Smedley in his 1883book titled History of the Underground Railroad when hunters wereunable to detect fugitives beyond Columbia. Thus first the Under-ground Road, and afterward the Underground Railroad, came to beused as a name more frequently with reference to the operations ofthis secret network (Siebert, 1967, p. 45). However, Wilbur H.Siebert notes that the latter anecdote and its symbolism as claimedby Smedley, which contains an anachronism, could scarcely havereceived its figurative application as early as Smedley impliesbecause the railroads were not known either in England or in theUnited States until about 1830.

As to the system of operation, the &dquo;railroad&dquo; was made up of aloosely knit network of stations, located at points a day’s journeyapart, to which a runaway would be brought by a &dquo;conductor.&dquo;

Conductors, sometimes referred to as pilots, were the men andwomen who often went to the heart of Southern territories and

helped the fugitives to escape by leading them along secret routesto freedom. Along these routes were the houses or places of friend-ship, known as &dquo;stations&dquo; or &dquo;depots,&dquo; and men and women whoran them were known as &dquo;station masters.&dquo; Without having a formalorganization, leadership in the Underground Railroad was reachedby individual performance and example, not by election or appoint-ment. The conductors had to conceal their identities; they wereunknown except by those in need of their help, and they had goodreasons to avoid publicity. Usually a field agent who posed as apeddler, map maker, or census taker would establish the initialcontact with the fugitive. Once he or she gained the confidence ofthe suspecting fugitive, the agent would lead the runaway in thehands of another &dquo;conductor,&dquo; who would take the runaway to thefirst station. There the runaway would be fed, rested, and sometimes

given a disguise to start the journey by contributors who were

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known as &dquo;stockholders.&dquo; These people, who played a less active,less dangerous, but equally important role, contributed money forbribes and transportation as much as for food and clothing. Thetraveling was done at night with the aid of the North Star on clearnights, which became a symbol of celestial pilot for the fugitives.Many slaveholders, on the other hand, expressed their hatred forthe North Star and declared that, if they could, they would tear itfrom its place in the heavens.

As to the conditions of the northbound travel, during the day thefugitive would be concealed in a barn, cave, sail loft, or hayrick.Most houses that were stations had secret passages and chambersto facilitate hiding or escaping. One of these houses, the AlexanderDobbin House in Gettsysburg, now renovated as a modem restau-rant, had sliding shelves installed on one of its interior walls thatconcealed a perfect hiding place-a crawlspace large enough toaccommodate several fugitives (Blockson, 1984, p. 25). Once thepassage was safely secured, the fugitive would be put on a north-bound boat or train if the skipper or trainman were a member of theunderground apparatus or a trusted sympathizer. Between 1830 and1860, more than 2,000 fugitives were assisted by the UndergroundRailroad. It was Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, and evenConnecticut, mainly those states that are close to either Canada orthe Southern regions, that had established the most succesful op-erations of the Underground Railroad.


The most famous of the Underground Railroad operators wasHarriet Tubman, herself a runaway. After the Civil War, she movedto Auburn, New York. Her house, located 25 miles southwest ofSyracuse, was a way station on the Underground Railroad, on theline from the East Coast to sanctuary in Canada. She knew the route

very well and traveled along the road that is now U.S. 20, throughNew York’s Finger Lakes and across the international bridge atNiagara Falls.

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Auburn became her home for 48 years, the base of manyhumanitarian pursuits. A few years before she died in 1913, sheturned it into a home for the aged. The house was restored in 1953(Cantor, 1991, p. 89).

For a brief time during her life, Tubman also settled in Philadelphia,where she gave public speeches on abolition. She joined WilliamStill, who sent her traveling on the Underground Railroad. She isknown to have visited Southern states 19 times and conducted morethan 300 runaways to the North or to Canada. Called &dquo;the Mosesof her people,&dquo; Tubman was tough, resilient, and brave. It is

reported that if any of the fugitives in her party would be scared andattempt to run back, she not only would declare, &dquo;Dead niggers tellno tales; you go on or die,&dquo; but also would threaten to use herrevolver (Siebert, 1967, p. 187).Tubman also maintained that she never let &dquo;a train run off the

track,&dquo; meaning that she had never lost anyone in a rescue operation.With a $40,000 price placed on her head, Tubman kept struggling forthe rescue of Blacks even during the Civil War. She worked as a scoutand a spy for the Union Army and once helped free more than 700people. John Brown referred to her as General Tubman, and she wasa keen supporter of the abolitionists’ plan to seize the arsenal atHarper’s Ferry (Cantor, 1991, p. 68). During the Civil War, sheserved as a spy and as a scout because of her formidable skills and

familiarity with the routes of the southern countryside.


Contrary to the public sentiment, the Underground Railroad wasoperated by interracial groups under the direction of an efficient&dquo;vigilance committee.&dquo; The vigilance committee worked in closeconnection with the operators of the Underground Railroad. After theUnderground Railroad secured the flight of the fugitive, the vigilancecommittee helped him or her get established in the new location-finding a home and a job-and protected the fugitive while doing so.The corresponding secretary of the Philadelphia committee was WilliamStill, and he was among the city’s leading African American men

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along with James Forten and Robert Purvis, who are noteworthythrough their efforts in shaping the freedom movement.


Purvis was bom in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1810. Hisfather was an English immigrant who prospered in the cotton trade.His mother was of Moorish and German Jewish descent. In about

1820, the family moved to Philadelphia, where Purvis made hishome until his death in 1898. Because of his family’s wealth, Purvisled a comfortable life, attended private schools, and devoted mostof his life to the Underground Railroad, the antislavery cause, andthe struggle for civil rights. He gave his first public speech againstenslavement at the age of 17. He served on the executive committee

of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He was also one of thepresidents of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. His house atNinth and Lombard streets had a secret room, entered only by a trapdoor, for hiding runaways (Kent & Hunter, 1969, p. 29). He wasactive in the Negro convention movement before the Civil War andin the Republican party during Reconstruction. His marriage toHarriet Forten, a daughter of Forten, the wealthy sailmaker andabolitionist, also strengthened his ties with the antislavery cause.

In 1837, Purvis joined with other Philadelphia Blacks to form avigilance committee for the purpose of assisting &dquo;colored personsin distress&dquo; called the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia (Kent &Hunter, 1969, p. 2). Appointed president in 1839, Purvis and hisfriends were successful in sending 46 fugitives farther north tofreedom. By the end of 1841, the committee averaged 31/2 cases aweek (p. 3). During the 1840s, the committee collapsed. Particu-larly following the riot of 1842, which forced him to guard his owndoor against the antiabolition rioters who burned the nearby Bene-ficial Hall and a Black church, Purvis was disillusioned. He with-drew to the Philadelphia suburb of Byberry.

Nevertheless, in December 1852, a new vigilance committee wasorganized under the leadership of J. Miller McKim, with Purvis aschairman. William Still was appointed to head a smaller &dquo;actingcommittee,&dquo; which apparently was expected to do most of the

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work. This group assisted about 100 fugitives per year throughoutthe 1850s, providing them with lodging, clothing, medicine, andrailroad fares to Canada.


As for Still, bom in 1821, he was the youngest of 18 childrenthat Still’s family raised on a small piece of farmland in New Jersey.Both of his parents had been enslaved in Maryland; his father hadpurchased his freedom, and his mother had simply run away(Brown, 1970, p. 33). Although Still did not have formal education,he was an avid reader and, in 1844 (some sources say 1847), hecame to Philadelphia to take a job as clerk and janitor in the officeof the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society until the Civil War. Prob-ably due to his family history, he had been preoccupied with theidea of assisting the fugitives. He not only boarded them at his ownhouse but kept secret records on all the runaways assisted by thePhiladelphia group to unite them with their families later. Still

displayed great courage and risked his own life in accommodatingfugitives because the penalties were very severe. Those who aidedthe runaways often faced criminal penalties of 6 months in jail anda $1,000 fine in addition to a civil liability to the holder of $1,000for each fugitive (Blockson, 1984, p. 14). Still later used the recordsfor his pioneering book on the Underground Railroad, which hepublished in 1872. In this pivotal collection, Still let the fugitivesspeak for themselves by reproducing the words and stories he hadnoted as well as the letters he had received from them. Ironically,one of the most dramatic incidents in Still’s career with the Under-

ground Railroad was his reunion with his brother Peter, who hadbeen kidnapped and sold 40 years earlier (Afro-American Histori-cal and Cultural Museum, 1981, p. 74).


Of numerous incidents about runaways that Still recorded in his

book, Henry &dquo;Box&dquo; Brown’s is the most peculiar and brilliant storyof an escape in 1849. As an unhappy man in Richmond, Virginia,

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Brown knew that when he attempted to escape, he had to hit on anew invention altogether because, in Still’s words, &dquo;it was no

holiday task to escape the vigilance of Virginia slavehunters, or thewrath of an enraged master for committing the unpardonable sin ofattempting to escape to a land of liberty&dquo; (quoted in Fishel &

Quarles, 1967, p. 152). Brown, obviously a genius, ordered a box2 feet 8 inches deep, 2 feet wide, and 3 feet long that was lined withbaize. He had some water and a few biscuits with him. As reported,his mechanical implement for fresh air was one large gimlet. Afterhe entered the box, he had it nailed up, hooped with five hickoryhoops and addressed by his friend James A. Smith, a shoe dealer,to Wm. H. Johnson, Arch Street, Philadelphia, marked, &dquo;this side

up with care.&dquo; The box that carried Brown was sent to Adams’s

express office in a dray and then by overland express to Philadel-phia. During a certain part of the trip, which took 26 hours, Brownhad to travel on his head for miles, apparently because the notice,&dquo;this side up,&dquo; was not taken into much consideration by differentdelivery men.When the news about the possibility of the arrival of a box that

might contain a man reached Philadelphia, a member of the vigi-lance committee was first sent to the depot to meet the expectedfreight. However, due to a telegram that reached Philadelphia thesame afternoon, the plans were altered and the committee decidedthat it would be safer and seem less suspicious to have the expressdeliver the box to the Anti-Slavery Office. The following excerptfrom Still’s (1970) book describes the final scene with power andvivacity:

Next morning, according to arrangement, the box was at the Anti-Slavery office in due time. The witnesses present to behold theresurrection were J. M. McKim, Professor C. D. Cleveland, LewisThompson and the writer-William Still himself.

All was quiet. The door had been safely locked. Mr. McKimrapped quietly on the lid of the box and called out, &dquo;All right!&dquo;Instantly came the answer from within, &dquo;All right, sir!&dquo; (p. 154)

After the hickory hoops were cut and the lid was off, &dquo;the

marvellous resurrection of Brown ensued.&dquo; He rose up in his box,

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reached out his hand, saying, &dquo;How do you do, gentlemen?&dquo; He wasall wet, tired but joyous. He sang a psalm beginning with the words,&dquo;I waited patiently for the Lord, and He heard my prayer&dquo; (p. 70).

It is interesting that Still refers to Brown’s arrival as a &dquo;resurrec-tion ;&dquo; in fact, he was at the threshold of a new beginning. Followinghis arrival, Brown met a cordial reception at Lucretia Mott’s houseon Ninth Street. There he was furnished with clothing and anythinghe might need. Later, he spent 2 days at Still’s house on TwelfthStreet before he left for Boston.


As for James (or Samuel) Smith, the shoe dealer who helpedBrown to be boxed and shipped, his destiny was not as fortunate asthose of the others. He was arrested and sentenced to 8 years in theRichmond Penitentiary when he was boxing up two other fugitivesfollowing Box’s escape. His path also passed through Philadelphiaafter he was released. During his 2-week stay at Still’s house, a massmeeting convened in the Israel church, chaired by Reverend WilliamT. Catto. The following resolutions of this meeting, in July 1856,are illuminating in the sense that they emphasize Philadelphians’enthusiasm and commitment to the antislavery cause:

Whereas, We, the colored citizens of Philadelphia, have among usSamuel A. Smith, who was incarcerated over seven years in theRichmond Penitentiary for doing an act that was honorable to hisfeelings and his sense of justice and humanity, therefore,

Resolved, That we welcome him to this city as a martyr to thecause of Freedom.

Resolved, That we heartily tender him our gratitude for the goodhe has done to our suffering race.

Resolved, That we sympathize with him in his losses and suffer-ings in the cause of the poor, down-trodden slave. (Still, 1970, p. 73)

Brown was neither the first nor the last among a group of

fugitives who chose to escape enslavement by having themselvesboxed. William Peel, also known as William Box Peel Jones,

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arrived in Philadelphia in April 1859 by Erricson Line of Steamers.Amazingly, he was wrapped in straw and boxed up in a small cratethat hardly let him sit. After a series of dangerous confrontations atthe wharf, he was delivered to the vigilance committee by hisdevoted friend who had had him boxed. His friend had come from

Baltimore, Maryland, in cars and, after delivering him, headed backto Baltimore. Peel was 25 when he took the trip from enslavementto Canada.

Still was extremely resourceful in his documentation of fugitivescenarios, as one can comprehend from the following. For instance,in his book, Still (1970) narrated the story of three Black men whoarrived Philadelphia in the steamer, Pennsylvania, &dquo;stowed awayin a Hot Berth&dquo; (p. 39) in his own peculiarly stylistic expression.As a matter of fact, they had to lie down flat at a certain spot, notfar from the boiler, where the heat and coal dust were intolerable.James Mercer, William H. Gilliam, and John Clayton, who werefrom Richmond, arrived in Philadelphia on February 26, 1854, andquickly made their way to Canada as well.

The story of Clarissa Davis, age 22, who fled from Portsmouth,Virginia, in May 1854, is noteworthy because she chose to dressherself in male attire. Her passage to freedom was also secured bya steamship, City of Richmond, and once she reached the ship atdawn she was hidden in a box by a friend and delivered into thehands of the vigilance committee. It was in Philadelphia that, bythe advice of the committee, she dropped her old name and adoptedthe name Mary D. Armstead. Because her aim was to join herbrothers, who had fled before her to New Bedford, she was fur-nished with her Underground Railroad passport and directed to herdestination, where she joined her family.

As a matter of fact, the operations of the Underground Railroadincreasingly served as a magnet for Philadelphia during the latterhalf of the 19th century. Its locational efficiency as a major trans-portation center, widespread antislavery sentiment surrounding thearea, and irresistible call for African Americans in their pursuit offreedom helped to establish a continued presence of African Ameri-can societies, organizations, schools, and churches in Philadelphiamore so than was the case in other metropolitan areas on the East

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Coast. Thus any study of the Underground Railroad cannot beseparated from a historical understanding of the role and efficiencyprovided by these societies and organizations. It was the presenceof these organizations and the level of social awareness that wasraised by their members and followers that had made a change inthe course of the nation’s social and political decisions. WhenAmistad, the ship that was captured by Cinque and his fellowAfrican warriors, was brought to Philadelphia in 1840, the AfricanAmerican congregation of the Presbyterian church located at Elev-enth Street solicited funds along with members of Philadelphia’svigilance committee, who went out and raised their voices insupport of Cinque despite the opposition of southern newspapersand their northern allies. Due to the intensifying antislavery strug-gle, President John Quincy Adams, emotionally moved by Cinque’splight, defended the case before the Supreme Court. Cinque and hisfriends were freed in 1841, and they left for Sierra Leone thefollowing year (Asante & Mattson, 1992, p. 56).

Philadelphia’s paramount involvement in the antislavery causecan be attributed largely to its being an early home base for theestablishment of the first Black organizations and churches in theUnited States. The Free African Society of Philadelphia, estab-lished by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones on April 12, 1787, wasa mutual aid organization whose members contributed one shillingper month to be used to aid the sick, bury the dead, and help supportwidows and orphans. This society led to the establishment of twochurches. Allen formed the Bethel African Methodist EpiscopalChurch in 1793 at Sixth and Lombard streets. The second churchthat grew out of the Free African Society of Philadelphia in 1794was the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, located at Fifthand Lombard streets and led by Jones with the help of BenjaminRush. On September 20, 1830, the first national African Americanconvention met at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church withthe participation of 38 delegates from eight states and elected Allenas its president. The present building of &dquo;Mother Bethel&dquo; A.M.E.Church stands on the original land that was acquired during the1790s; however, the building itself dates back only to 1889, andAllen’s tomb is located in its basement (Brown, 1970, p. 12). Both

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churches, officially recorded as organized in 1794, are uniquecontributions to Philadelphia’s historical legacy.

The campaigns against enslavement and those in support ofvotes for women were natural allies during the mid-19th century.Most of the time, both Black and White women were members ofboth camps. For instance, Sojourner Truth is best known for herimpassioned abolotionist oratory and for guiding runaways throughthe northern portion of the Underground Railroad (Cantor, 1991,p. 33). The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which grewout of the American Anti-Slavery Society, had a powerful impacton the development and maintenance of the abolitionist sentimentamong women in Philadelphia. Organized on December 9, 1833,under the leadership of Lucretia Mott, a Quaker, its membershiprose rapidly. Among its 60 members, there were several prominentBlack women such as Sarah Douglass, who taught Black childrenat a private school; Harriet Forten Purvis, the wife of Robert Purvis;and Sarah and Margaretta Forten, also daughters of James Forten.

Between 1830 and 1860, the African American population rosein Pennsylvania, particularly in Philadelphia. Although the reasoncannot be attributed solely to the presence of abolitionist societiesand the undertakings of the Underground Railroad, their impactcannot be denied. By 1860, 57,000 African Americans were livingin Pennsylvania, and about 30% or 40% of this population waslocated in the Philadelphia area. African Americans comprisedabout 4% of Philadelphia’s population.

According to a survey conducted in 1838 by the PennsylvaniaAbolition Society, African Americans in Philadelphia ownedapproximately $1 million worth of property and were paying$167,000 in rent. They were engaged in different occupations asbakers (9), blacksmiths (23), shoemakers (95), bricklayers (5),cabinetmakers (15), carpenters (41), dressmakers (82), hairdressers(100), milliners (24), painters (6), sailmakers (20), tanners (31 ), andso on.

The class differences were determined by income levels amongAfrican Americans in Philadelphia. The well-to-do families had hadtheir daughters trained in painting, music, and needlework. Theirhomes were graced with carpets and pianos. On the other hand, a

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statistical inquiry published by the Abolition Society in 1849 de-scribed some lower-income housing consisting of &dquo;dark, dampholes, six feet square, without a bed in any of them, and generallywithout furniture&dquo; (Still, 1970, p. 38).

The presence of numerous antislavery societies and the vitalatmosphere created by the presence of Black intelligentsia in Phila-delphia also contributed much to the fact that more and moreAfrican Americans chose to live in and around Philadelphia towardthe end of the 19th century. For instance, the Banneker Institute ofPhiladelphia, named for Benjamin Banneker, an early AfricanAmerican mathematician and astronomer, sponsored annual lecturecourses during the 1850s. A brief look into the names and topicsinitiated for 1855 and 1856 lecture courses indicates the determi-nation of African Americans to elevate themselves intellectuallyand culturally: Sarah M. Douglass, &dquo;Anatomy&dquo;; I. C. Wears and A.M. Shadd, &dquo;Canada&dquo;; and Reverend Jeremiah Asher, &dquo;Does theBible Sanction Slavery?&dquo; (Brown, 1970, p. 41). These lecturesdefinitely played a formative role in laying the groundwork forseveral Philadelphia-based social reform movements.

The American Moral Reform Society, organized by the nationalNegro convention that met in Philadelphia in 1835, included thepromotion of &dquo;temperance&dquo; as one of its goals. As a matter of fact,it was in the aftermath of a temperance lecture organized by theAmerican Moral Reform Society that a mob riot set PennsylvaniaHall afire on May 17, 1838. Launching of The National Reformer,the journal of the American Moral Reform Society, marks one ofits noteworthy accomplishments, published in Philadelphia underthe editorship of William Whipper during the 1830s. The ChristianRecorder, a weekly journal, was also established in Philadelphia asthe organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1852. Thesejournals and Black presses frequently published articles announc-ing news about the runaways promoting publicity and sympathy forthe antislavery cause, particularly during turbulent days of thepre-Civil War period.

This article has attempted to shed light onto some of the unsungheroes and heroines, citizens of Philadelphia who joined hands inthe struggle for the most noble of all fights that is worth fighting-

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that is freedom. Throughout the years that the city proudly bore theburden and served as a safe haven for hundreds of fugitives whoeventually found their way toward its embracing arms, Philadelphiawas obviously paying homage and asking forgiveness, in a charac-teristically ironic manner, not only from the first generation ofAfricans who were forcibly brought to the banks of the DelawareRiver but also to those Africans who were entered through the portof Philadelphia from the British West Indies only to be sold for £40sterling at the auction block on Market Street.


1. This is one of the earliest spirituals, said to be a favorite one of Harriet Tubman thatshe would sing to convey coded messages throughout her ordeals with the UndergroundRailroad.


Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum. (1981). Of color, humanitas and statehood:The Black experience in Pennsylvania over three centuries 1681-1961. Philadelphia, PA:Eleazar Associates.

Asante, M. K. (1990). Kemet, Afrocentricity and knowledge. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.Asante, M. K., & Mattson, M. T. (1992). Historical and cultural atlas of African Americans.

New York: Macmillan.

Blockson, C. (1984, July). Escape from slavery: Underground Railroad. National Geo-graphic Magazine, pp. 3-39.

Breyfogle, W. (1958). Make free: The story of the Underground Railroad. Philadelphia:Lippincott.

Brown, I. V. (1970). The Negro in Pennsylvania history (Pennsylvania History Studies, No.11). University Park: Pennsylvania Historical Association.

Cantor, G. (1991). Historic Black landmarks: A traveler’s guide. Detroit: Visible Ink Press.Fishel, L. H., & Quarles, B. (1967). The NegroAmerican: A documentary history. Glenview,

IL: Scott, Foresman.Kent, D., & Hunter, W. (Eds.). (1969). Historic Pennsylvania leaflet (No. 29). Harrisburg:

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.McGowan, J. A. (1977). Station master on the Underground Railroad: The life and letters

of Thomas Garrett. Moylan, PA: Whimsie Press.Siebert, W. H. (1967). The Underground Railroad from slavery to freedom. New York:

Russell & Russell.

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Smedley, R. C. (1968). History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the neighbouringcounties of Pennsylvania. New York: Negro University Press.

Still, W. (1970). Underground Railroad: A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters.Chicago: Johnson.

NilgunAnadolu Okur is an assistant professor in the Department of African AmencanStudies at Temple University. She is the director of the Drama Institute and the editorof the Journal of Black Drama. Her research mterests and publications mcludeAfrican American history, drama, literature, and women issues. She is the recipientof two Fulbright awards.

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