Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad was an inter-racial enterprise where free African Americans were just as active, if not more aggressive, than white abolitionists in aiding fugitives. Interracial cooperation was key to the success of the movement, and the primary reason that the Underground Railroad is popularly evoked as a historical model for contemporary race relations.
Pennsylvania’s status as a “free state” was due largely to its Quaker founders. The Religious Society of Friends was the first religious body to launch an attack against slavery. As early as 1688, the Quakers of Germantown Meeting, near Philadelphia, drafted the first anti-slavery petition in America. Acting on the Friends’ most fundamental belief of an “Inner Light,” or the presence of God in every human being, the Germantown Friends reasoned that if God manifested His presence in each individual, then, in His eyes, all humans were of equal value, regardless of race. Accordingly, they urged their Quaker brethren to “stand against the practice of bringing slaves to this country, or selling them against their own will.”
In 1759, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the governing body of Friends in southeastern Pennsylvania, forbade members to continue any involvement in the slave trade. Seventeen years later, in 1776, slaveholding was made a cause for disownment within the Religious Society of Friends. Afterward, individual Quakers joined other non-Quaker abolitionists in petitioning the Pennsylvania state legislature to abolish slavery. Their efforts came to fruition in 1780 when the legislature passed a Gradual Abolition Act requiring all slaveholders in the state to register their slaves and provide for the emancipation of those born after March 1, 1780, when they reached the age of 28. Shortly after, Pennsylvania became a destination point for runaway slaves from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
While some Quakers provided the children of free blacks with a rudimentary education during the late eighteenth century, their anti-slavery activities were largely inspired by a spiritual reformation of their own religious body. Friends were more concerned about their own salvation and the spiritual integrity of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting than about integrating blacks into their own communities as equals. Thus, they tended to act alone in their reform involvements or with white abolitionists of other religious denominations on Quaker-founded reform organizations, such as the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society. Not until the 1830’s, when Friends took their anti-slavery crusade into the larger society, did they join with African Americans.
The creation and expansion of the Underground Railroad offered greater opportunity for interracial cooperation. Among the most notable partnerships was that of the white Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett and William Still, the African American director of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. Together, they assisted more than 8,500 fugitives on the Eastern Line of the Underground Railroad.
Quakers were not predominant in Northeastern Pennsylvania, though they were responsible for settling Monroe and Susquehanna Counties and may have been responsible for the strong abolitionist sentiment in both of those areas. Instead, white abolitionists tended to come from the Presbyterian, Baptist, Universalist, Methodist, and Moravian churches. Religious conviction motivated many individuals to help slaves achieve their freedom, though there was serious disagreement within many denominations as to how far they should go in their anti-slavery activities. Most favored gradual abolition. Others wanted an immediate eradication of slavery. Still others thought it was morally imperative to encourage slaves to escape from their masters, even though it meant violating federal law.
William Gildersleeve of Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, of Presbyterian persuasion, was one of the region’s most radical abolitionists. Once, when asked why he assisted fugitives, Gildersleeve admitted that he was “beholden to a higher law than those of the government.” Nor did he have any reservations about joining with the local black community in his Underground Railroad activities. Two of his employees, Lucy Washburn, a maid, and Jacob Welcome, a laborer, conducted fugitives between his home and other stations in the area. Both belonged to the Bethel A.M.E. Church, reinforcing the interracial nature of the region’s Underground Railroad. Similarly, Reverend Albert L. Post of Montrose, Susquehanna County, and his family worked with David Nelson, a black conductor, in relocating fugitives John Booey, Charles Hammond and William Smith to their region.
Not all of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s white abolitionists were Underground Railroad agents. Slavery became an intense issue in the region during the 1830’s when there was an increase in the traffic of fugitives. At issue among the abolitionists was not whether slavery should be eradicated, but how the institution should be abolished. Two organizations emerged from the debate: the Susquehanna Colonization Society and the Susquehanna County Anti-Slavery and Free Discussion Society. The Susquehanna Colonization Society, established in 1834, favored resettling freed blacks to homelands outside of the United States, preferably in Africa. Their aim was to avoid racial tensions over labor competition and residential patterns. The Susquehanna County Anti-Slavery Society, on the other hand, advocated the complete eradication of slavery through reason and moral persuasion. Founded in 1836, this society became the more popular of the two among Susquehanna County’s abolitionists, and two years later, there were a total of eight sub-groups in the county, including the Rush Anti-Slavery Society and the New Milford Anti-Slavery Society. Neither group publicly advocated participation in the Underground Railroad, which was illegal according to the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.
Nevertheless, the Susquehanna Anti-Slavery Society faced harsh condemnation from the Democrat Party, which began forming pro-slavery organizations throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. In Luzerne county, for example, the Democrats created the pro-slavery “Friends of the Union,” which condemned the “mischievous spirit of abolition” in 1842, and insisted that the “subordination of the Black race to the white was recognized as a valid condition of the federal constitution.” Their resolution added that abolition “has not its origin in any sound or well-adjusted principles of human benevolence but from a total misapprehension of the great purposes of God’s providence” and that southern slavery was “a matter of direct necessity and a common benefit to both North and South.”
Among those who signed the resolution were some of Wilkes-Barre’s most prominent citizens and stalwart Democrats including: The Honorable Andrew Beaumont, G. L. Bowman, General Isaac Bowman, Samuel D. Brobst, Eleazer Carey, N. G. Howe, E. E. LeClere, F. W. Nicholson, Samuel T. Nicholson, General W. Oliver, Henry Pettebone, F. W. Streater, William Streater, and Daniel Wagner. Some of these men owned and operated coal mines in the fledgling anthracite industry of the Wyoming Valley. They employed white labor and did not relish the possibility of displacing that workforce with African American laborers, or the violence that would inevitably result from it. Others were politicians, beholden to blue-collar votes. If they supported the abolitionist cause, they would be turned out of office.
African American involvement in the Underground Railroad coalesced around the free black community. Charles Blockson has identified the aggressive and sustained activity of African Americans and their churches on the Underground Railroad. Additionally, James and Lois Horton have written important works on the northern free black community and its relationship with white abolitionists. They argue that, while disagreement over leadership styles existed in that community, it did not preclude cooperation towards common goals within the free black community or with the white abolitionist community, particularly in such areas as abolitionism, involvement on the Underground Railroad, and securing educational opportunities for African Americans. Just as important, the strong bond between free blacks and the fugitives reflected the African American community’s “propensity for collective self-help” as it was based on the bonds of “blood, of culture, of common experience, and a common world view that recognized the injustice of American racial inequality.”
In Northeastern Pennsylvania, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was the nerve center of black involvement on the Underground Railroad. Founded in 1816 by Reverend Richard Allen, a former slave who was refused ordination in the Methodist Church, the A.M.E. Church grew quickly. By 1826 it had two bishops and 7,927 members. A.M.E. Churches emerged wherever there was a community of blacks in Pennsylvania. Almost immediately the church became involved in the cause of abolition. Bethel A.M.E. Church in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, established in 1848, played an instrumental role helping runaways William Thomas and Lewis Tucker. The Waverly A.M.E. Church in Lackawanna County, established in 1844, assisted fugitives George Keyes and Lot Norris. Congregants came to Norris’ rescue wielding pitchforks when a slave catcher attempted to reclaim him. Similar Underground Railroad activities in Montrose, Susquehanna County, were coordinated by William Smith, a local preacher in the Berry Street A.M.E. Zion Church, established in 1847.
Closer investigation of the records for each of these churches and oral histories of their contemporary congregants should yield more information.