Local Research Focus
Using Still’s work as a guideline, along with secondary source local histories, primary source documentation, and oral history interviews from the ten-county Northeast Pennsylvania region, research CASS’ research is operating on the following hypotheses:
a. Northeast Pennsylvania was not only a passageway to freedom in Canada, but a permanent destination for those runaways who were searching for family or employment in the farming, anthracite and/or lumber industries.
b. Fugitives were not helpless passengers on the Underground Railroad, dependent solely on white abolitionist groups for a safe passage to freedom, but rather played the most significant and courageous role in their own escape.
c. Northeast 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.
d. The network of canals, Indian paths and railroads that existed throughout Northeast Pennsylvania provided fugitives with access to freedom in the region and to the north beyond.
Today, people connect most of the Underground Railroad drama in Pennsylvania involving hairbreadth escapes and the fury of slave catchers to southeastern Pennsylvania, usually Philadelphia. It is true that this major metropolis was the most important center for Underground Railroad activity in the southeastern region of the state during the nineteenth century. It is also true that the movement’s success depended upon the sustained vigilance of many participants who kept watch and extended to fugitives at stations scattered throughout the state. The lingering underestimation of the crucial contributions of heroic men and women living in rural communities and in small towns far from the streets and landings of Philadelphia presents an incomplete view of the greatest human rights movement of the age. This is a view that must be corrected to bring to the public the true scope and magnitude of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania and a better understanding of how grassroots organizations operate to create change.
This research study found documents that reveal impressive Underground Railroad activity through the ten of Northeastern Pennsylvania. What stands out as perhaps the most important factor in the movement’s success is the forged strength of people representing three separate entities — runaways, black agents, and white abolitionists — all working against the great evil of chattel slavery. The groups engaged in this struggle, as listed in order, reflect the importance of their contribution to the movement. We recognize that, without the dedication and cooperation of every individual who picked up the mantel for freedom, sometimes in a calculated way and sometimes on the spur of the moment, protracted slavery and greater human suffering would have resulted. Acknowledgment of the vested interests and commensurate level of commitment for each group, generally speaking, is necessary for the sake of creating a balanced and fair portrayal of the Underground Railroad.
First and foremost, focus is on the agency of runaways and their absorption into these Northeastern Pennsylvania communities, while including the important roles played by black and white abolitionists in assisting fugitives. Effort will be made to scale all contributions from these groups to proportionate size in order to create the true story of their contributions to the larger Pennsylvania Underground Railroad story.