From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

The Underground Railroad – the escape to freedom by slaves before the Civil War – remains one of the most compelling stories in American history. A unique blend of historical fact and colorful folklore contribute to an enduring message of hope, courage, and ingenuity in the face of persecution and adversity.

Pennsylvania’s central role in the Underground Railroad is undeniable. At least three major escape routes ran through the Commonwealth. The western route included stops at such landmarks as the LeMoyne House in Washington, in southwestern Pennsylvania, now a National Historic Landmark. The central route included Lancaster, York, and Adams Counties. At the Dobbins House in Gettysburg, visitors can see some of the tangible reminders of this story. Further north in Williams­port, a state historical marker commemorates Daniel Hughes, a black lumberman, and the “Freedom Road” which he and his family operated.

The most famous passage to freedom in Pennsylvania involved people and places in and around Philadelphia. Encouraged by the American Anti-Slavery Society and financed by black and white leaders, “agents” and “conductors” based in Philadelphia were responsible for a remarkable series of daring escapes. The incredible journey of Henry “Box” Brown, a man who packed himself into a wooden crate and traveled by rail from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia, is just one of many documented stories that have survived. William Still, the Johnson House, and Mother Bethel AME Church are but several of the names and places in Philadelphia associated with the Underground Railroad.

Public interest in this topic, sparked by a recent National Park Service study, is growing. The study also prompted several publications and conferences. Of perhaps equal importance has been the positive response on the state and local levels to encourage documentation and public programming. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has forged a partnership with state agencies and educational institutions to broaden understanding and to build a wider audience.

On Thursday, April 27, the Commission will sponsor a one-day workshop in Harrisburg to provide additional information on the historic sites and public programs that are being developed to preserve the history of the Underground Railroad. The workshop will precede the twenty-third annual Conference on Black History in Pennsylvania, featuring eminent historian John Hope Franklin as keynote speaker, the following day.

A state historical marker documenting the Underground Railroad in the Harris­burg region, slated for dedication on Saturday, April 29, will recognize the fact that entire communities, as well as individual sites, were involved in the network of freedom. Although slavery and its aftermath form a tragic chapter in our national experience, the underground railroad offers inspiring examples of individual and collective resistance and provides a positive message about our democratic heritage.

Brent D. Glass
Executive Director