Underground Railroad Free Press
News & Views on the Underground Railroad • Vol. XVII, no. 95, May 2022
Published bimonthly since 2006, we bring together organizations and people interested in the historical and the contemporary Underground Railroad. Free Press is the home of Lynx, the central registry of contemporary Underground Railroad organizations; Datebook, the community's event calendar; and the Free Press Prizes awarded annually for leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge, the community's highest honors. Please visit urrfreepress.com for more.
In This Issue
Time Travel at Button Farm
Free Press Prize Nominations Open
Josiah Henson Returns
A Child First Learns of the Underground Railroad
Volunteer in Chicago
Chicago’s Little Calumet River Underground Railroad Project illinoisundergroundrailroad.info is recruiting volunteers to assist in its Juneteenth Celebration, other events, and local Underground Railroad hikes this summer. This is a vibrant, well-organized Underground Railroad program. Sign up by contacting Coordinator Tom Shepherd at 773-370-3305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Step Back In Time
The Button Farm Living History Center’s 2022 open house season has begun. The 35-acre working farm founded in 1767 interprets the period when enslaved labor shaped the landscape and modern agricultural technology had not yet been developed. This is a busy interesting place for a visit. Button Farm is located at 16820 Black Rock Road, Germantown, Maryland. Visit the website at buttonfarm.org for its events calendar.
Free Press Speaks
Underground Railroad Free Press publisher Peter Michael will deliver the keynote address at the opening of the Traditions Week of McDaniel College’s annual two-week Common Ground summer program. For nearly 30 years, Common Ground has promoted racial understanding through traditional music and arts. Mr. Michael will present an illustrated presentation on "The Underground Railroad: The War for the Soul of America" which may be viewed live at 8 PM on June 27 at youtube.com/c/commongroundonthehillofficial.
Nominate a Friend or Organization for a 2022 Free Press Prize
Three Free Press Prizes are awarded annually for leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge. These prizes are regarded as the international Underground Railroad community's highest honors. Please visit urrfreepress.com for more on the prizes and for nomination forms.
Road Named for Underground Railroad Icon Josiah Henson
This article by Wayne Young from the April 6, 2022, issue of Port of Harlem e-magazine is reprinted with permission. Visit https://portofharlem.net for more.
Montrose Parkway, which parallels Montrose Road, in Montgomery County, Maryland, is now named for famed abolitionist and Methodist preacher Josiah Henson. The parkway runs through the northern part of the former plantation where Henson escaped slavery. Additionally, The Josiah Henson Museum and Park is just south of the parkway.
The enslaved Henson escaped the farm to Canada in 1830. Henson’s 1849 autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, credited with building support for the anti-slavery movement that led to the American Civil War. Historians also credit Henson for leading 118 other Africans out of enslavement to Canada on the Underground Railroad.
Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest and most diverse counties in the United States, borders Washington, DC on the north. The county is about 18 percent Black and home to many newly arrived Africans.
Canada has also memorialized Henson at The Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, an open-air museum in Dresden, Ontario, Canada. “Our histories are inextricably mixed and connected,” said Canadian Black history advocate Rosemary Sandlier, “with a genesis in Africa, the shared interruption of our progress through the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and our shared experience of the post slavery period which included clipped progress, degrees of segregation, and anti-Black racism.”
An interesting note about Josiah Henson is that he was almost certainly related to a United States president. In his autobiography, Henson intimates that his blood father was Dr. Josias Hanson McPherson. McPherson was a cousin of John Hanson, the first president of the original United States government chartered under the Articles of Confederation. Josiah Henson was also the great-uncle of Matthew Henson, the first person to reach the North Pole when he scouted ahead of Admiral Byrd’s party.
The Owl’s Eye
For this article we thank subscriber John Davis, a retired U.S. Army counterintelligence officer, civil servant, and linguist who served in counterintelligence for 37 years. His published works include “Rainy Street Stories: Reflections on Secret Wars, Terrorism and Espionage” and “Around the Corner: Reflections on American Wars, Violence, Terrorism and Hope.” Here, Mr. Davis tells of how he learned of the Underground Railroad as child while traveling with his father and making a chance stop along the Mississippi River in Missouri. The story’s narrator is a man who the boy and father met.
During my flight around town, I chanced to hear this story, told by an Athenian. [Someone from Athens, Missouri]
“One particularly strange event stands out in my memory,” he said. “I was a little boy at the time and recall one fine autumn daytrip that ended with more adventure than we’d ever imagined. “Like most St. Louisans, we were proud of our fellow Missourian, Mark Twain. So, one day, my family rode the 80 or so miles to Twain’s Mississippi River home in Hannibal, Mo., from ours in St. Louis.
“Halfway there we stopped at a small restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River. Dad engaged the owner in friendly banter. The man looked at my sisters and me saying, ‘Would you kids like to see a secret station on the Underground Railroad?’ Remember, I was quite young, maybe 7 or 8 at the most. I pictured a railroad like the one at Union Station in downtown St. Louis, complete with blasting whistles and smoking engines, only underground! The restaurant owner explained that, in slavery times before the Civil War, African Americans were always trying to escape to freedom. A new law had been passed, called the Fugitive Slave Act that made it a punishable offense to aid in the escape of any person enslaved in the South. A $500 fine, which in those days would literally break any family, was only part of the penalty. For example, three friends discovered hiding some 20 people were sentenced to 12 years each in the Missouri penitentiary.
“Our guide said in 1860 a white abolitionist family had lived here in this house, now his restaurant. The abolitionists were secretly contacted by a fellow white conspirator. The man would ask if they would be interested in buying abolitionist tracts. Of course, they responded. This was the clue needed to know this was the right house. That night, some half dozen Blacks of varied age and sex would appear, then were quickly brought in through a back door. Then, the restaurant owner moved a false ‘wall of rocks’ behind the fireplace! He showed us how the escapees were led behind the fireplace and taken down a narrow flight of stairs. All this happened while the fire still blazed. Down the narrow staircase was a hollowed-out room. There they found a dinner waiting, and mats placed around the floor for sleeping. They only stayed a day, or two at the most. The white conspirator would then go down to the river at night. A ‘fisherman’ in his boat would answer to his coded call that he had ‘passengers’ ready to cross the mighty Mississippi. That is how — with great exertion, because the powerful river is hard to cross — the escaped slaves made it to Illinois, a safer route to Canada.
“We stared in awe at the relatively tiny room, imagining what it must have been like to be crowded together, waiting for passage over the water. A palpable fear must have caused shivers just thinking about what lay ahead. Water, betrayal, guns, and unknown roads were only a few of the horrors awaiting them. Packs of armed men searched all over the countryside for such escapees, for they too knew who the abolitionists were and watched them carefully. A $500-dollar reward for a returned slave attracted the avarice of many men. Such money as catching slaves brought would exceed any amount gained in years of honest work.
“Many routes led to Canada on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. Some of the ‘conductors’ who guided the escaped slaves were indeed abolitionists. Others were members of churches which did not agree with slavery. Still others broke with faiths which quoted Biblical texts supposedly in support of slavery. Some ‘conductors’ or ‘station masters’ were themselves free African Americans who kept the stations open and the passengers well-tended. Alas, many ‘passengers’ were recaptured, the conductors sentenced, while Black men, children and women were sent back in chains down the river. Slave catchers used black slaves to decoy escapees into traps, where all would be taken and returned south. False stations were created. Suspected real stations were surveilled by slave catchers day and night, for time was on the side of the chasers.
“But not all the odds were on the side of slavery’s defenders. The slavers were often stunned to discover that good people can be clever, too. One story can stand for many. Here is an actual account from those days: ‘Three female slaves had run away from St. Louis because their masters were preparing to sell them down in New Orleans. Their pursuers were hard after them. Their friends conducted them to an old hut east of my house. A Mr. Turner said, ‘I found my frightened and trembling girls. I told them to follow me.’ One of the neighbors was a good Presbyterian elder, but an extreme pro-slavery man. I said to myself, ‘That is it.’ The Elder and his wife are a vast deal better Christians than they pretend to be. I shall take my prize right to their door, tell them the whole truth about it and throw the whole responsibility upon them, which I did, closing with the remark, ‘Now you know, my dear Doctor, that I have done all I can do to shelter and defend these poor women whom I have brought to your door and I leave it wholly with you to shelter and provide for them at my expense, or to betray both of them to the public authorities as violators of the laws of our state.’ ‘We will not betray either you or them,’ said his wife."
Mr. Davis reflects that, “Such stories happened in our country. I learned more about America here, at this strange ‘station,’ than even during our later visit that day to Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal. Never again would I think the same way about Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim after seeing this stop on the Underground Railroad. I like to imagine my family’s unexpected visit to an actual underground station might have strangely been arranged by the great writer, who doubtless sat on this very riverside, wondering how to get across with Jim.”