A Black Underground: Resistance to Slavery, 1833-1860

Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

The Underground Railroad is an important historical link with which most Pennsylvanians are familiar. Ever since William Still, the Black histo­rian, published his famous record of fugitive aid in 1872, however, many have questioned whether in reality the Underground Railroad existed. Some say that fugitive aid in Pennsylvania was rendered individually and spontaneously. Others say that an organized and effective “under­ground railroad” did exist, particularly in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and rural areas such as Lancaster, Chester, and Montgomery counties, Pennsylvania.

For over a century we also have been led to believe that white abolitionists and Quakers gratuitously extended aid to free Negroes and runaway slaves alike. Benjamin Quarles, in his book Black Abolitionists, denies this. Blacks, he says, played a commanding role in institutional protection of the free Negro and fugitive bondsman in the pre-Civil War North. Moreover, they significantly changed the direction of organized resistance to slavery, especially in the vigilance committees of Philadelphia and in activities in various smaller towns of Pennsylvania.

There is much evidence to show that in Pennsylvania there was some “organized,” as well as spontaneous, resistance to slavery and that those who composed the vigilance committees and those responsible for other local efforts were increasingly Blacks. Black men and women took over the work from whites, becoming the core of those engaged in fugitive aid.



Since earliest colonial days, slavery was a problem in Pennsylvania. Cases involving runaways frequently appeared as advertisements in many colonial newspapers throughout the Commonwealth:

Ran away from Austin Paris of Philadelphia, Founder, on the 22 day this instant, a Negro boy called Bedford or Ducko, aged about sixteen or seventeen years; speaks very good English, wears a dark brown colored coat and jacket, pair of white Fustiona Breeches, a gray mil I’d Cap with red Border, a pair of new Yark Stocking, with a Pair of Brown worsted under them, or in his pockets. Whoever brings him to his said master, or informs him of him so that he may be secured, shall be satisfied for their Pains, by me, Austin Paris. – The American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia) January 31, 1721

At that time, though Pennsylvania slave masters made laws to provide for the apprehension and return of run­aways, its citizens were gradually growing hostile to slavery and many began to assist fugitives in their quest for freedom. On April 14, 1775, Quakers and other abolitionists organized the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to give assistance to fugitives fleeing masters. This assistance continued well into the nineteenth century, even after Pennsylvania had passed a gradual abolition act. For example, a visitor to the Friends meetinghouse in Merion, Montgomery County, reported the case of a tailor in Philadelphia in 1804 who offered assistance to fugitives, helping them elude their pursuers and get to the interior parts of the State.

It took nearly sixty more years between the foundation of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1775 and the beginnings of an organized underground activity. The timing is important: the onset of anti-slavery activity and fugitive aid in 1833 coincided with developments in the Black community in Pennsylvania. The Negro convention, school, and self-improvement movements began about then. The leadership of many of these organizations promoting reform was invariably composed of Black abolitionists.

Black communities in the cities and towns of Penn­sylvania, especially in southeastern Pennsylvania, out­stripped all other cities in the United States in fostering Black improvement. Nearly half of the adult Black population of Lancaster, York, West Chester, Harrisburg, Colum­bia, Gettysburg, Chester, and Philadelphia, for example, held membership in mutual-aid and self-help organizations during the 1840’s. Pennsylvania Negro churches, meetings, and self-improvement societies had a basic core of leader­ship and had connections with organized resistance to slavery.

Indeed, the most vociferous organizers of networks “to freedom” were churchmen. This was because many Black ministers felt that organized assistance to fugitives and the commitment that meant to freedom challenged the prevailing religious dogma of many white churches that a truly religious man was one who was patient. As early as 1831, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, commonly known as Mother Bethel and founded by Richard Allen, held the first Black political convention in Pennsylvania to protest slavery. Delegates encouraged the use of churches as sanctuaries for runaway slaves, an idea which would be carried out by nearly all Black churches in Pennsylvania. Runaway slaves felt safer among their own in the House of the Lord.

By 1838 many of the Black clergy in Pennsylvania sanctioned abolitionist and fugitive-aid meetings and other activity in their buildings, and even joined them­selves. In Philadelphia, for example, on April 16, 1838, Zoar A.M.E. in Northern Liberties held a public meeting to solicit contributors and increase membership for the Vigilant (Fugitive Aid) Association and Committee. The Rev. Walter Proctor, pastor of Mother Bethel ‘Church, belonged to the militant Vigilance Committee of Phila­delphia. The Rev. Stephen H. Gloucester of the Central Presbyterian Church of Color, the Rev. Daniel Scott of the Union Baptist Church, the Rev. William Douglass, and the Rev. Charles W. Gardiner were all members of an underground connection in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania Freemen, IV, July 26, 1838).



It took a great deal of time for the anti-slavery societies to become engaged in fugitive aid. In 1837 the Pennsyl­vania Anti-Slavery Society organized to coordinate the establishment of juvenile and adult anti-slavery societies in all parts of Pennsylvania. But even this society em­phasized agitation against slavery to the neglect of fugitive aid. By December 1840, the P.A.S.S., dominated by white abolitionists, had appointed a committee “to inquire into the cause of the diminution of interest among the colored people in respect to association with us.” The neglect of fugitive aid irritated Black abolitionists.

It was not until the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that the anti-slavery societies began to realize the practical value of helping absconding slaves from the South. By 1852 the policies of the P.A.S.S. had evolved sufficiently for it to coordinate the passing along of fugitive slaves.

But before that, in August 1837, more militant Black and white abolitionists had created the “Philadelphia Vigilance Association” to fund aid to “colored persons in distress.” The association elected three Black officers at its initial meeting: James McCrommel, president; Jacob C. White, secretary; and James Needham, treasurer. A few weeks later, it chose Charles Atkins, a Negro, to be “the authorized agent to collect funds for the association.” Philadelphia’s Black community figured prominently in the formation and activities of the association.

The minute books of the Philadelphia Vigilance Com­mittee, 1839-1854, is a record of more than meetings; it is a case book of its operation as well. The Vigilance As­sociation of Philadelphia, through its Vigilant Committee, assisted destitute fugitives with board and room, clothing and medicine, and money. It informed fugitives of their legal rights, gave them legal protection from kidnappers, and frequently prosecuted individuals who had attempted to abduct, sell, or violate the legal rights of free Negroes. Moreover, it helped runaways set up a permanent home or gave them temporary employment before their de­parture to Canada. The Vigilant Committee sent bonds­men north via other contacts to the Vigilance Committee of New York, with which it had a close working relation­ship. The committee aided hundreds of runaway slaves before the Civil War.

At any juncture of its history, a majority of the of­ficers of the association were Negro. In 1839, for example, nine of the sixteen-member Vigilant Committee were Negro, including James McCrommel, Jacob C. White, James Needham, James Gibbons, Daniel Colly, J. J. G. Bias, Shepherd Shay, and Stephen H. Gloucester. Other Blacks included were William Still, Robert Purvis, Charles Bustill, Charles Reason, and Joseph C. Weare.

There was a dramatic change in tone and membership of the association beginning in 1840. The Black com­munity and the Vigilance Association of Philadelphia criticized the weak stand taken on fugitive aid and the protection of free Negroes by the white-dominated anti­slavery societies. From this time on the membership of the Vigilance Committee was composed almost entirely of Blacks and reflected the critical stance of Philadelphia’s Black community toward the anti-slavery societies.

In Montgomery County, a wealthy rural county adjacent to Philadelphia, most whites were lukewarm in regard to aiding escaping slaves. Some whites were sympathetic and willing to help in time of real need, but they did not want their involvement generally known. Consequently, here too Blacks did most of the real fugitive-aid work, such as providing shelter and rescuing escaped slaves in trouble. Among the better-known Blacks involved were Ben John­son, John August, and Dan Ross. Dan Ross took risks which threatened fugitive-aid work, such as the aid he rendered to William Parker, a fugitive who fled from Baltimore.

These active Blacks were joined in the work of fugitive aid by a handful of famous white abolitionists such as Samuel Maulsby; Allen, George, and Joseph Corson; James and Lucretia Mott; and the Rev. Samuel Aaron of the First Baptist Church of Norristown. But it was the free Black community, in Pennsylvania as well as Philadelphia and Montgomery County, which did the vital work of organized and unorganized assistance to fugitives.



Since much of the early work for fugitives was un­organized, private homes served as “stations” or places of hiding where fugitives could be sheltered for a short time before being taken to the next stopping place. Places of refuge could be hotels, residences of people whose standing in the community was secure, or even the humble abodes of Black people. Much of the legend of the Under­ground Railroad revolves around the trapdoors, secret rooms, barns, and elaborate codes used to conceal fugitives in these places of refuge. The homeowner most often took fugitives to the next home on the path to freedom, using information gathered from his work in anti-slavery offices, from the network of gossip and information known only in the Black community, or from the Black churches. (In Pittsburgh, the largely Black sections of Arthursville and Hayti were well known for aiding runaways.)

When a runaway appeared at many stations in Mont­gomery County, he was hidden until it could be determined whether he was being followed immediately and by whom. Professional bounty hunters were much more skillful and ruthless in finding and returning slaves than their masters. After serious consideration, the station master would make a decision as to the most expedient course of action. In some situations, slaves would be hurried on into neigh­boring Bucks and Berks counties; but if the bounty hunters were close on the trail, the runaways hid until the hunters had been convinced they had lost their quarry.

Plymouth Meeting, a quiet town in Montgomery County, was the center of a strong anti-slavery movement and a key station on the Underground Railroad. The Plymouth Meet­ing Anti-Slavery Society held its first meeting in the Friends meetinghouse in 1833, and the building stands today virtually unchanged despite its 262 years as the hub of this Quaker community.

Samuel Maulsby, leader of this abolitionist community, along with Allen and Joseph Corson, had spoken openly against slavery as early as 1820. The Corson name became legend along the Underground Railroad, for virtually every member of the family participated. Members of this il­lustrious family are still living in the area today.

George Corson decided that a permanent place of meeting was needed for the growing number of abolition­ists in the community, and in 1858 he built a simple brick structure that accommodated two hundred persons for Anti-Slavery Society meetings. It also served as a station stop on the Underground Railroad. The building was named Abolition Hall, and John Greenleaf Whittier, the abolitionist poet, and Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave lecturer, often spoke there.

Only a gatehouse now remains in Cheltenham Town­ship to mark the existence of Roadside, a major station on the Underground Railroad and the former home of James and Lucretia Mott. The Motts welcomed persons dedicated to the anti-slavery movement as constant guests, the famous and the obscure, American and foreign.



The nuances of Black culture permitted the work to continue, nurtured with the trust, love, and a feeling of community which Blacks shared among themselves. These people were of necessity ingenious and creative in their quest for freedom, and worked in organizations as well as on their own until the passages of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments abolished slavery and gave Blacks the same civil rights as whites.



Underground Activists

  • James C. McCrummel, a Black dentist and abolitionist from Philadelphia, often provided sanctuary for slaves in his home. He was a close friend of the fiery Boston newspaper editor, William Lloyd Garrison. McCrummel’s home was used by the American Anti-Slavery Society to discuss how the society could expand its aid to escaping slaves.
  • The famous Black Civil War correspondent and lawyer from Harrisburg, T. Morris Chester, had equally famous parents. His mother was an es­caped slave from Baltimore who found her way to York, Pennsylvania, and eventually to Harrisburg. She married George Chester, a freed Black, and they operated an elaborate and well-known restaurant at 305 Chestnut Street in Harrisburg. Many of the leading Black citizens of the town held their social functions at the Chester establishment. It also served as a forum for abolitionist lecturers such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, Frances Harper, Thaddeus Stevens, and Robert Purvis. They met often at the restaurant to plot strategy.
  • Harriet Tubman comes to mind immediately as another Black woman who was totally involved in the Underground Railroad. Born in Maryland, she was known as the Moses of her people for delivering so many of them out of bondage to freedom. From time to time she lived in Philadelphia; but for the most part, she used various homes in the city’s Black community to hide fugitives who had successfully made the arduous journey.
  • Mary Anne Shadd was the daughter of the wealthy Black abolitionist, Abraham Shadd of West Chester, Pennsylvania. After the Shadds moved to Canada, Mary Anne became the first Black woman editor of a newspaper, The Provincial Freedman. Those who fled this country to Canada were provided news through this publication, especially of Blacks who were encamped in refugee camps in Canada.
  • Sarah Douglass was a freed Black Quaker from a distinguished family in Philadelphia. Upon attending Quaker meetings, she noted that there was a separate bench for Blacks to sit on and refused to use the segregated seating arrangement. This forthright woman later helped to organize the Female Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Her efforts laid the groundwork and involved such persons as the Grimke sisters, Lucretia Mott, and other women who fought for their own rights as well as those of slaves.
  • Anti-slavery poet Frances Ellen Watkin Harper was another distinguished Black woman. An accomplished lecturer. she toured the East and Canada informing her listeners about the evil institution of slavery. When she was not busy making frequent appearances at anti-slavery bazaars in Pennsylvania and other areas along the east coast, she provided comfort for runaways in her home.


The author would like to acknowledge his use of Joseph Borome’s, “The Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, XCII (July, 1968), 320-52; and Bill Fergusson’s, A Black Underground: The Under­ground Railroad in Philadelphia, 1836-1854, unpublished M.A. Thesis, The Pennsylvania State University, 1972.


Charles Blockson was educated at The Pennsylvania State University. As an author, lecturer, and teacher in Black history, Charles is ubiquitous. He is president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society: on the Board of Directors, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and a member of the Pennsylvania State Historical and Record Advisory Board. He has published two popular monographs, Pennsylvania’s Black History and Black Genealogy, and is planning more. He is a consultant in human rights for the Norristown School District.