Indiana County museum spotlights Western Pennsylvania's role in Underground Railroad


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On a quiet side street in a small town in Indiana County, a nearly century-old building houses a one-room museum that celebrates and documents the brave people who operated the Blairsville Underground Railroad from the early 1800s through the 1861 start of the Civil War.

The “conductors” on that railroad risked jail and heavy fines to help African-Americans escape enslavement in the South as they traveled northward — hiding one place at a time — to freedom.

Blairsville was a significant part of the network, said Joy Fairbanks, president of the Blairsville Underground Railroad Project, which started in 2006. She spoke this month to 20 members of The Shakespeare Club, the first group to tour the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center this season. Stories abound about “safe houses” with hidden rooms and underground tunnels winding down to the Conemaugh River, but “much of that is hearsay and hard to prove,” Mrs. Fairbanks said. The little museum, about 45 miles east of Pittsburgh, contains a map that shows the Underground Railroad stations in Blairsville and other Indiana County towns that have been documented. 

Marna Conrad, another volunteer, joined Mrs. Fairbanks in telling a story that is one of the high points of the Blairsville area’s contribution to the movement. 

In presentations, and on the group’s website, volunteers tell what is called “The Rescue of 1858”:

Robert Stump, a so-called “slave catcher” from Virginia, and Peter Heck, a tailor from Uniontown, came to Blairsville, claiming they had a federal warrant for a fugitive slave named Richard Newman, who had been living in the town for six years. He was sheltered by Lewis Johnston, a coal miner and community leader who was the son of a free black man and a woman who was a slave.

Stump and Heck spotted Newman on the street and tried to capture him. But an angry mob of townspeople poured into the street, pulled Newman to safety and drove the slave catchers away.

“They wanted to tar and feather the men,” Ms. Conrad said of the townspeople. “There was talk of hanging them.”

But the mayor and a constable “settled the town down,” the slave catchers left and Newman stayed. The incident was reported in newspapers throughout the country. 

The 1858 Blairsville incident is indeed documented, said Samuel W. Black, director of African-American programs at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Ample documentation exists of Underground Railroad activity in Blairsville, Pittsburgh and throughout Western Pennsylvania, he said.

“Pennsylvania was a free state” where slavery was outlawed, Mr. Black said. The state also had a lot of Underground Railroad traffic because it was a border state, sitting just north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Before the Civil War, slavery was legal to the south of that line.

“The abolition movement was very strong” in Pittsburgh and nearby counties, Mr. Black said.

Freedom seekers

Volunteers at the Blairsville museum often use the term “fugitives” to describe the slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad. Terms used by other people and publications include “escaped slaves,” ”runaway slaves’’ or ’’fugitive slaves.’’

Mr. Black prefers another term: freedom seekers.

Traditional stories about the Underground Railroad often indicate that slaves were trying to get to Canada, but they weren’t always going that far, Mr. Black said.

Freedom seekers fleeing the South “usually were looking for a place where they could live as free people, and in some cases, that was Pittsburgh,” Mr. Black said. Many of them simply walked, while small numbers reportedly stowed away in cargo on riverboats or got rides in horse-drawn wagons.

The steel mills would not be built until later in the century. In Western Pennsylvania, relocated blacks often worked as barbers, gardeners, cooks, river dock workers or on steam boats on the region’s rivers.

“There were concerns about the destination of some people who were the poorest of the poor” and had few job skills, Mr. Black said.

“The Pittsburgh abolition community was militant,” and the city had a reputation as “not a place for a slave holder,” Mr. Black noted. “Incidents like Blairsville’s Rescue of 1858 happened all the time in Pittsburgh.”

Old church, new purpose 

The Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center is at 214 S. East Lane, a residential street with well-maintained houses and gardens. The cornerstone of the building housing the museum reads, “2nd Baptist Church 1918.” It was built long after the Civil War ended, “by the second wave of African-Americans who came through the area because of industry along the Conemaugh River,” Mrs. Fairbanks said. It is the oldest African-American structure in town.   

When the organization started renting the site in 2006, it had been vacant for about 15 years, after church members moved to a larger church in town. When the rent the group paid totaled $5,000, the building belonged to the Underground Railroad project, which is funded by donations and grants from several sources, including the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

The outside of the building is covered with tan granular siding that is patterned to look like brick. It covers the original wood frame of the church. To remove the siding and restore the original wood would cost $80,000, Mrs. Conrad said, and there’s no money for that.

Inside the single big room, the floor is planed wood, and attention has been paid to using original furnishings.

The museum is open May through October by appointment only. About 20 tours come through each year, including students from schools in Allegheny County. Third-grade students from the Blairsville Saltsburg School District come every year for a field trip to learn the local history. Recently, a group of 150 history buffs came by bus from California. They had stopped at historic sites and museums all over the country.

No admission is charged, but a suggested donation of $3 per person helps to pay for utilities and building repairs.

The group that runs the museum has just six volunteers and is always looking for new members.

The project works hand-in-hand with the Historical Society of the Blairsville Area, which converted a house into a museum just a couple blocks away at 116 E. Campbell St. The society is a Heinz History Center affiliate program member.

This season, the first group took the tour May 9 and consisted of 20 members of The Shakespeare Club, which started in Indiana County in 1879 as a literary club. Its mission was expanded long ago to hold monthly meetings on a wide range of topics, said Bruce Jenkins, who served as club president for 22 years.

“The program committee thought it would be a good idea to learn more about this,” club member Marilyn Dilg of Indiana said of the museum.

Hands-on exhibits 

“In this museum, you can pick anything up,” Mrs. Conrad said, as Mrs. Fairbanks showed visitors two large wooden buckets joined by a wooden yoke. Slave children had to carry those buckets, Mrs. Fairbanks said.

Although the buckets are modern-era replicas, the yoke is from the pre-Civil War era. The buckets and yoke are part of an exhibit called “Day in the Life of an Enslaved Child,” developed by one of the founding members, Denise Jennings-Doyle, using a grant from the Pittsburgh 250 project funded by the Sprout Foundation. The interactive exhibit allows children to experience some of the chores and activities of enslaved children.

The other exhibit, “Freedom in the Air,” was developed by Chris Catafalmo and is on loan from the Indiana County Historical and Genealogical Society. It tells more about Indiana County abolitionists.

“What our mayor and constable did in 1858 was illegal,” Ms. Conrad said, referring to their decision not to help the men trying to capture Newman. The Fugitive Slave Act passed by federal officials in 1850 required officials and citizens to help bounty hunters, slave catchers and slave owners recover slaves, who were considered property. The law applied even in the “free” states in the north.

“If you didn’t help slave owners, you could be fined and jailed,” Ms. Conrad said. “But around here, the sentiment was predominantly abolitionist” and the Underground Railroad flourished, as did the “conductors” who included some of Blairsville’s prominent, wealthy businessmen.

“When I first got involved in the history of the Underground Railroad, being white, I felt guilty,” Ms. Conrad said, until she learned that “people black and white” worked together, providing food, shelter and money to the freedom seekers.

Blairsville residents are proud of their town’s abolitionist history, Ms. Jennings-Doyle said. But she added, “The true heroes are the men and women who risked everything to escape to freedom.”

“They left the only homes they knew” in the South and traveled north, wearing only the clothes on their back, Ms. Conrad said, adding that they did not have warm clothing for the Northern winters. “People in the Underground Railroad did not give what they could afford. They gave what was needed, including one woman who gave the quilt off her bed because a black woman had nothing to keep her baby warm.”

The Underground Railroad movement ended in 1865, when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

For information or to schedule a tour of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, ideally one month in advance: 724-459-5779, blairsvilleugrr@yahoo.com or www.undergroundrailroadblairsvillepa.com.

The website includes information and maps for a self-guided driving tour of 23 historic Underground Railroad sites throughout Indiana County.The first eight stops make up a walking tour in Blairsville. The website also has information about a fall tour of a cemetery where soldiers from every war back to the Revolutionary War are buried; a talent show fundraiser; and historic re-enactments by Blairsville residents in period dress. To contact the Historical Society of the Blairsville Area: 724-459-0580. 

The Heinz History Center in the Strip District has a long-running Underground Railroad exhibit, “From Slavery to Freedom,” which opened in 2012. Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0087.

 


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