The spring house at the Cyrus Griest House. This is where Cyrus Griest and his wife Mary Ann (Cook) Griest hid self-emancipators. The Griests were members of the Menallen Friends Meeting in Menallen Township, PA.
Earlier I made mention about the diverse group of people involved in the Underground Railroad, so let’s get a more in depth look at them today.
Of course, people of color were the largest group participating in the UGRR. First and foremost were the self-emancipators, or runaway slaves. They would take part in the organization while they were escaping, but many “gave back” by serving in other capacities once they were free.
Free black men and women also took part in the Underground Railroad. In 1787, before anyone knew anything about an Underground Railroad, the Rev. Absalom Jones and the Rev. Richard Allen formed the Free African Church in Philadelphia and through it the Independent Free African Society, the earliest group to provide help for those who had been recently freed through manumission or self-emancipation.
Black churches also played a major role in the UGRR. These included the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded in 1816 by the Rev. Richard Allen, a black Methodist minister from Philadelphia. Another prominent church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AMEZ), was founded in 1821 when a group of black Methodists walked out of New York City’s John Street Methodist Church.
White religious groups also worked with the UGRR. The Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends) struggled with anti-slavery sentiments until 1754 when the society officially condemned the institution and urged its members to free their slaves immediately. Most of the colonies’ 360,000 Quakers lived in southeast and southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as northern Delaware and Maryland. They were located in a perfect area to help shepherd people north.
But other religious groups shared abolitionist sentiments, too. The Presbyterian Church condemned slavery in 1787. However, the issues of slavery and abolition within the Methodist Episcopal Church: eventually led to a split in 1844 between its northern and southern churches. The Baptists also had an abolitionist branch. Not surprisingly, then, white Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists became involved in helping runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad.
Abolition societies were the final group of people who were active in the Underground Railroad. These societies began to emerge in the late-1700s-early 1800s. They were scattered throughout the northern states and tended to merge and/or change their names as membership grew, which makes it a bit hard to tell who’s who. For instance, the Philadelphia Abolition Society grew into the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. The New York Committee for a National Anti-Slavery Society (whew, some moniker) merged with the New England Anti-Slavery Society and became known simply as the American Anti-Slavery Society.
As a side note, women early on made a connection between the plight of people of color and their own unequal existence. When females became active in anti-slavery societies and attempted to sit on the floor with the males at yearly meetings, they were told that women were not permitted to do such things. This treatment led directly to the creation of the Seneca Falls Convention (New York) in July 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the United States.
I live in New Jersey and around here people sometimes claim that certain old houses were stations on the Underground Railroad. But is the claim true? If there are no supporting documents or other sources of proof, we might be able to guess at the likelihood of the claim. We do that by asking a few questions. Who or what were located in the same town or nearby as the house? Were there a number of black people living there? What about an AME or AMEZ church? Were white Methodists or Presbyterians nearby? Was a Quaker meeting house in the vicinity? Did the town have an anti-slavery society? If two or more of those groups were in the town or the neighboring area, then there just might have been an Underground Railroad there, too.
Here’s an example. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania had a black community and an AME Church. Just north of Gettysburg is an area called Yellow Hill, although it was known as Pine Hill at the time of the Civil War. Pine Hill, founded by a man named Edward Mathews, was a black community and is now believed to have been a safe home for self-emancipators. Not far from Pine Hill was a community of Quakers. So, was there Underground Railroad activity there? Why, yes. Yes, there was. However, this is not to say that we don’t need to do any other research to uncover hardcore facts! In the case of Gettysburg and Adams County, researchers have uncovered sources that support the presence of the UGRR there. So, homework is always a good idea.
Helping self-emancipators escape into freedom did not come without risk. If you were a runaway and you were caught and returned to your “owner,” you would be subject to any number of painful, brutal punishments: whippings, disfigurement, and torture to name a few.
If you worked as conductors, station masters, or other personnel on the UGRR, you faced some serious punishment of another kind if you were caught aiding and abetting. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made aiding a runaway slave a federal crime and carried a fine of $500. The penalty for this federal crime grew harsher with the promulgation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This increased the fine to $1,000 and jail sentence of 6 months for each fugitive you helped.
The Underground Railroad carried a significant risk for all involved, but people undertook the work because of compassion, because they believed owning other people was wrong, and because they saw the humanity of enslaved people.
On Friday, I’ll give a bit of detail on how self-emancipators traveled from southern states to northern states and often up to Canada. Or… would you believe south to Mexico? Yes. It’s true.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder