The Underground Railroad in the 19th Century - Woven With Words

 

Misty Doane

 

Most people know that the Underground Railroad is not a railroad, but is a route by which slaves in the southern United States escaped to their freedom in the North.  What is not as well known is that Berks County was instrumental in the creation of this route to freedom.

 

Berks County was much bigger when it was first formed in 1752 than it is today.  Because of the changes in Berks County borders, areas that were in the county then are now in other counties and vice versa.  There were thirteen known Underground Railroad stops within the Berks County of today and many others in surrounding counties.  Because some stops were so close to Berks County borders and because some conductors (people who went to the South to help guide slaves to safety) within Berks County communicated directly with conductors in Philadelphia, it is best to take a look at the bigger picture of the Underground Railroad in order to understand Berks County's role in it.

 

The 1780s saw the beginning of the Underground Railroad among the Quakers of southeastern Pennsylvania, and in 1839, the Anti-slavery Society of Philadelphia was founded.  Robert Purvis, the wealthy founder of the organization, joined with the Coates family to create false certificates of freedom, contact sympathizers in the South, recruit runaways, and hide runaway slaves in his home (the Purvis Mansion ) before shipping them north into Berks County (Homan 1958, 113).  William Still, an ex-slave whose freedom was purchased by his father, accommodated runaways in his Philadelphia home.  He “kept secret records on all the runaways assisted by the [Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in] Philadelphia to unite them with their families later” (Okur 2005, 549), and he assisted in shuttling runaways into Berks County, often to Reading (Homan 1958, 117).

 

By 1850, Berks County had emancipated all of its slaves.  That same year, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which stated that anyone suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested and tried simply through the sworn testimony of another; anyone aiding a runaway slave would be fined $1,000 and imprisoned for six months; anyone capturing a fugitive slave was entitled to a reward; and all United States citizens were expected to assist in returning fugitive slaves to their owners (Zagofsky 2005).  The Act caused such unrest in Berks County that the “United States Marines [were] sent near the Berks border to restore order” (Homan 1958, 112).

 

In Phoenixville, south of the Berks County border, Elijah F. Pennypacker, a Quaker, took care of many escapees at his farm.  By 1852, his farm had become a central part of the Underground Railroad. P ennypacker was said to have helped more runaways than anyone else in the tri-county border area of Morgantown (Homan 1958).  The next stop north of Phoenixville was Pine Forge, followed by the Six Penny Colored Church, Hopewell Furnace, Joanna Furnace, the homes of Isaac Cole, Scarlet Mills, White Bear, and three stops in Reading.  Some stops are still in dispute and others are undergoing archaeological digs, such as the Purvin Homestead and the Kirbeyville Inn.

 

 

Pine Forge

In 1720, iron maker Thomas Rutter built a manor house at the Pine Forge station and under it dug tunnels to hide from hostile Native Americans.  Later, when John Potts Rutter lived in the house, the tunnels were used to hide runaway slaves.  Because Pine Forge was so far from cities (where slave hunters lurked), it was a safe haven for runaway slaves.  Rutter also needed many laborers to run his business, so he employed freed and runaway slaves alike.  Employment helped runaways earn money for their journey (Blockson 1981).  The manor house is now one of the buildings at Pine Forge Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist boarding school. African Americans currently own the “Manor House” and the tunnels are still in the cellar (Cohen 2005).

 

 

The Six Penny Colored Church

Historian Joseph E. Walker explains that an increase in the African American population in the extreme southern tip of Berks County accounted for the building of the A.M.E. Mount Frisby Church, also known as the Six Penny Colored Church and the Mt. Zion Church.  Located three miles from Hopewell Furnace, the church was built in 1856 by runaway slaves.  In 1860, there were nine homes surrounding the church, indicating that it was a “Negro colony centered around the new church” (Walker 1974, 311-12).  The Six Penny Colored Church is still standing, though abandoned.  It is home to the oldest African American cemetery in Berks County (Homan 1958, 114).

 

 

Hopewell Furnace

Records show that many African Americans passed through Hopewell Furnace, employed for short periods of time.  But the only concrete evidence of anti-slavery sentiment at the Furnace was a pamphlet that listed the names of two “Iron-masters” working at the Furnace, and called for all religious people to put an end to slavery (Walker 1974, 306).  The Furnace operated until 1883 and is now part of the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (“ Hopewell ” 2005).

 

 

Joanna Furnace

Built in 1791, Joanna Furnace was named after Joanna Holland Potts, the wife of principal owner Samuel Potts (Markiel 2005).  A later owner, Levi “Bull” Smith, aided runaway slaves by sending them to the most remote areas of the woods surrounding the Furnace, staying with them until danger passed (Blockson 1981, 85).  Smith, a 1824 Princeton graduate, was admitted to the bar in 1827 and later ran for Congress (Homan 1958, 118).

 

Smith may also have convinced a friend, Henry Segner, to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad because he knew the countryside so well: “It was reputed that, if necessary, he could send a fleeing party of slaves, guided by a charcoal burner, in one direction, then lure a group of slave hunters to follow him all night until they were so thoroughly lost in the mountains they could not find their way out for days” (Homan 1958, 118). S egner's descendants still live in the vicinity.  Joanna Furnace, just north of Joanna, Pennsylvania, off Route 10 north, is owned by Bethlehem Steel (Homan 1958, 118) and is currently under renovation (Markiel 2005).

 

 

Isaac Cole

Isaac Cole is one of two former slaves buried in the cemetery at Mt. Frisby (the Six Penny Colored Church ). Isaac Cole was a veteran of the Civil War, and an American flag now marks his grave.  Descendents of Isaac Cole live in a house near the cemetery, and their “garage is the old church building which was an Underground station stop” (Homan 1958, 114).

 

Scarlet Mills

Scarlet Mills was one of the most well-known stations on the Pennsylvania Underground Railroad.  “The Forrest,” the home of Quaker widow Elizabeth Scarlet and her son, Joseph, was in Robeson Township near Birdsboro, a remote region safe from slave hunters (Blockson 1981, 84-85).  According to historian Wayne E. Homan, “[t]he Scarlet Mansion at Scarlet Mills...probably housed more Negro escapees over a longer period than any other Berks station stop” (1958, 114).

 

While he was living in Lancaster County, Joseph Scarlet was indicted for participation in the Christiana Riot of 1851; “[h]e had galloped on horseback through...Christiana warning abolitionists that kidnappers had come to arrest several fugitives” (Blockson 1981, 84-85).  Historian Wayne E. Homan explains that once, while visiting Pennington (Atglen), Joseph Scarlet saw an African American chained to a bar in a public house, awaiting trial in Lancaster.  Later that evening, the captive was freed—the bar rail had been sawed through by someone. “For many years thereafter,” Homan reports, “a damaged pair of handcuffs hung on the wall of Scarlet's home” (1958, 117).

 

 

White Bear

Some time after 1850, Thomas Lewis, the Quaker son-in-law of Elizabeth Scarlet, operated an Underground Railroad station out of the home he built in White Bear in 1810 (Walker 1974, 307; Homan 1958, 115).  Charles Boyer, an eighty-year resident of White Bear, recalled his “parents and grandparents...claiming that any fugitive slave could find sanctuary at any house along that road [now State Route 341, west from White Bear to Plow church]” (Homan 1958, 117).

 

 

Washington Street Presbyterian Church, Reading

The Washington Street Presbyterian Church was one of Reading's Underground Railroad stops.  Ex-slave William Still directed where passengers from Philadelphia would go.  Some were delivered directly to Reading in boxes loaded on a P&R boxcar.  Members of the Washington Street Presbyterian Church would feed, clothe, and house the runaways before sending them to their next destination (Homan 1958, 117).  According to Homan, a town constable by the name of “Bully” Lyons would lock some of the runaways in the jail on Washington and Fifth until they could be moved to their next destination, thus keeping them out of the clutches of slave hunters.  Reading tax dollars paid for their meals while they were locked in the jail (1958).

 

 

Bethel A.M.E. Church, Reading

Founded in 1821, the first Bethel African Methodist Episcopal ( A.M.E.) Church in Reading was a log cabin at Franklin and Apple Streets.  The church location changed after seven members (Samuel Murray, George Dillon, George Santee, Enoch Sanders, Jacob Ross, Isaac Parker, and William Clark) bought property at 119 North 10th Street in 1836.  The congregation grew so large that in 1867, an even larger building was built there (“ Bethel A.M.E. Church ”).

 

Churches in the 1800s were sacred ground, and slave hunters would not search for runaways there, making them ideal hiding places.  Frank Gilyard reports that at the A.M.E. Church, which is now the home of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, the pit where runaway slaves would hide still exists.  Under one of the windows at the front of the church is a trapdoor under which is a crawl space that can fit twenty people.

 

Bethel A.M.E. Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was renovated and restored in 1984.  Since 1998, the church has acted as a museum, housing artifacts collected by Mr. Gilyard, museum trustee, and others.  One such artifact is a slave collar recovered from the Parvin Homestead on Snyder Road in Ontelaunee Township, which is believed to have been another stop on the Underground Railroad.

 

 

The Kirbeyville Inn

Between Reading and Kutztown on Rt. 222 lies a dilapidated old building known originally as the Kirbeyville Hotel and now called the Kirbeyville Inn.  According to one of two original place mats from the now abandoned establishment (provided by Mr. Frank Gilyard), the hotel was built in 1790.  Later purchasers of the hotel wanted to remove the roof of the addition in the rear of the inn to add a second story.  What they discovered was an attic in the addition, complete with windows, that had no entrance.  Upon further investigation, a trapdoor was discovered in the ceiling which led to the attic.  Wooden partitions kept the inhabitants from being seen. A lso discovered in the attic was a moccasin, “two latches, a piece of old clothing, an old label from a whiskey bottle, and a medicine bottle with a label containing these words: ‘Dr. J. R. Miller, Universal Magnetic Balm'” (Placemat).

 

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@ 2018 Reading Branch #2289 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People