William Still. Photo from African American Registry.
I’d like to give you some stories about people who traveled on and worked with the Underground Railroad.
One story I came upon happened in 1840. It was about four siblings named Davie, Isaac, James, and Hannah Arthur who escaped eastern Maryland with the hope of getting to Haddonfield Quakers who were active on the Underground Railroad. The parents of the young self-emancipators had died and so they dared to run away to ensure that they would be together. Enslaved people always had the fear that they would be sold to someone else and be forced to leave family and friends. Although we don’t know what age the four Arthurs were, we do know that they traveled mostly by foot and managed to cross three state lines. And they did all this while evading slave hunters. Once the quartet entered southern New Jersey, they were identified by people working with the Underground Railroad, who got them safely to Haddonfield. The Arthurs stayed in the area and their descendants live in Lawnside (near Haddonfield), a town founded in 1840 by former slaves and other people of color. (Fiaschetti).
There also is the story of William Still (born 7 October 1819 or 1821), whose father, Levin Steel, purchased his freedom from his owner in Maryland and moved to New Jersey. Levin then changed his name to Levin Still, to protect his wife Sidney, who remained enslaved in Maryland. Sidney made one escape, got caught, and was returned. Luckily, her second escape was successful, and she was able to join her husband, but could bring only two of their children with her (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center).
William Still was born in Burlington County, New Jersey. He took a job in 1847 as a janitor with the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery, but soon began giving aid and shelter to fugitive slaves, one of whom was his brother Peter, who had been left behind when their mother escaped (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center).
Still kept meticulous records about his activities, however he destroyed many of them before the Civil War started to protect those he had helped. In 1872, he wrote a book, The Underground Railroad, which “is one of the most important historical records we have.” The book emphasizes self-emancipators “as courageous individuals who struggled for their own freedom” (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center).
Lawnside, New Jersey (known as Snow Hill back then) was also home to Peter Mott, a free man. He was preacher and Sunday school superintendent at Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mott purchased a lot in 1844 and on it built a two-story house, which served as an Underground Railroad station. Local Snow Hill women reportedly would bring food to the Mott house when Peter and his wife hid runaways The story goes that Mott took self-emancipators by wagon to Quakers living in Haddonfield and Moorestown so they could move further north. The Mott house was purchased and restored in 1992 by the Lawnside Historical Society and is open to the public (Fiaschetti). It certainly would be worth your while to visit if you live in or near New Jersey.
The Peter Mott House. Photo by the Lawnside Historical Society
People not only are still uncovering the history of the Underground Railroad, but also the history of the many black communities established in New Jersey. One such group lived in Sourland Mountain, a place with which I’m familiar. In the 1700s, the first African Americans in the area worked as slaves on farms in the valleys around the mountain. As New Jersey began to prohibit slavery – a process that took nearly 30 years – self-emancipators hid in the dense woods of Sourland Mountain (Stoutsburg/The People), most likely on their way to Underground Railroad stations in New Brunswick.
The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum “was born out of decades’ worth of research conducted by two of its advisory board members, Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck." The two women were working to establish the Stoutsburg Cemetery as the burial place of William Stives, who fought in the Revolutionary War and was among the early black settlers in the Sourlands. As Mills and Buck got into their research, they uncovered more information about the early African American settlers and realized that these powerful and uplifting stories needed to be made public. So, the two wrote a book, If These Stones Could Talk, which they hoped, would “be used as an addendum to the little known, missing black history facts left out of our family histories, our textbooks and libraries. The goal is to engage readers - and educate students - not only in New Jersey but also across America and beyond” (Stoutsburg/About). Do I need to say that I want to get that book?
I brought the information about the Stoutsburg museum up because it is important to know the history of all the people, not just a few. I’m glad the folks working at the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum have undertaken this effort, making them part of a greater group throughout the USA doing the same.
The story of the Underground Railroad, the bulk of its history hidden, needs to be uncovered as fully as it can be, as do the other aspects of black history.
Sources for this blog:
Fiaschetti, Patricia Weigold. “Freedom’s Path: The Underground Railroad in New Jersey,” New Jersey Monthly Magazine, 23 January 2015.
“William Still.” National Underground Railroad Freedom Center website.
Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. “The People.”
Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. “About.”
Other Sources Relating to Previous Blogs:
Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. (New York: Amistad-Harper Collins Publishers, 2006)
McCauslin, Debra Sandoe. Reconstructing the Past: Puzzle of the Lost Community at Yellow Hill. (North Charleston, SC :Book Surge Publishing, 2007)
Papson, Don and Tom Calarco. Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City. Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives. (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2015)
Switala, William J. Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006)
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder