By TAMELA BAKER, The Herald-Mail
HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — The road to freedom for slaves before — and during — the Civil War was an arduous one.
The goal for many was to reach the organized Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Although the journey may remain treacherous even there, at least they would have some help.
This organized effort itself did not necessarily include Hagerstown, but located just below the Pennsylvania border, the town was a place of connection for some seeking escape.
Historian Emilie Amt researched black history in Hagerstown and Washington County, and collaborated with Visit Hagerstown to create a brochure detailing the sites in town where these connections were made.
The result is a trail that leads from the former site of the Cumberland Valley Railroad depot on South Walnut Street to the future site of the Doleman Black Heritage Museum on Pennsylvania Avenue. The brochure came out last year.
“The sites don’t look like parts of the Underground Railroad,” Amt recently told Herald-Mail Media. “These are sites that people have escaped from.”
The brochure features stories and biographies of those involved. Included are James WC Pennington, born into slavery on the East Coast and brought to Washington County when he was 4 years old. In 1827 he escaped to Pennsylvania and connected with the Underground Railroad. He eventually attended Yale University, became a minister, and performed the marriage of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Then there’s Henry Wagoner, a free black man who worked as an Underground Railroad agent and eventually felt compelled to leave Maryland and go north himself.
We also learn about the fate of Otho Snyder, a free black man sent to prison after being found guilty of helping a slave escape.
“One of the things you find out about the Underground Railroad when you start learning about it is that it was much more active north of the Mason-Dixon line than below it,” Amt said. , “and people who were truly fleeing slavery. usually had to get out of the south and into the north before they could really hope for much help from the Underground Railroad.
And these are the stories that emerged from our local history.
“It happens all over Washington County,” she said, but she focused on Hagerstown for the brochure to create a walking tour.
“The stories in there about Hagerstown are typical of Washington County,” she said. “We have this kind of history everywhere. There are many stories from the Boonsboro, Funkstown, Clear Spring area.
A story from Clear Spring that Amt likes to tell concerns three brothers who escaped from the farm where they were enslaved on Easter Sunday. They hitched two of the farm horses to a carriage “and off they went,” Amt said.
They passed through Chambersburg and finally arrived in Canada.
But their landlord found out who their Underground Railroad connections were and contacted them, saying he would release the brothers if the organization paid him $1,300.
Then he offered to negotiate their freedom if they returned. “And they say, ‘No thanks, we’re fine,'” Amt said.
But one of the brothers came back. He saved $80 to go to Clear Spring and try to bring in family members who had been left behind. But his efforts were in vain.
“They wouldn’t go,” Amt said.
They had been promised their eventual freedom, she said, and she chose to wait it out.
“It’s probably that they thought it was too dangerous,” she said, so he “came back empty-handed.”
There are also painful stories of enslaved people in Washington County who tried to escape, were captured, and then sold further south.
“And that was every slave’s worst nightmare was to be sold further south,” Amt said. “They would be separated from their families, they would have much worse working conditions…it was like the end of the road if you were sold to the south.”
A CONTEXT OF CONFLICT LOYALTY
Maryland, a border state during the secession crisis, was quite southern but ultimately did not secede. It had the largest free black population of any “Southern” state, and at the time of the Civil War, Amt noted, half of Washington County’s black population was free.
Politically, the people of Washington County were conflicted over secession.
“The majority of white people here were pro-Union, but there was a sizeable secessionist minority. And so things got tense,” Amt said.
She was surprised by some of the things she learned in her study of local black history, Amt said. Although the Underground Railroad is the topic she’s most asked to talk about, “black history goes way beyond the Underground Railroad,” she said.
“I think it’s important for us, especially for white people, to learn more about black history,” said Amt, who is white. “…It’s important for us to learn about the era of slavery, and that it was violent, it was oppressive. It was terrible.
“And it was terrible here in Washington County too. There was violence here; there were beatings… people were being sold to the south. It was not an “easy” form of slavery that happened here in Washington County – it was brutal. It’s not a comfortable message to say or hear. But it’s important for us to know if we want to know a true story.
To take the Underground Railroad walking tour, download the brochure from the Visit Hagerstown website at https://tinyurl.com/4wfjkwns.
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