To read more about the conference and to register, click here.
2017 Joint Harriet Tubman UGRR Conference and National Park Service Network to Freedom UGRR Conference: On the Edge of Freedom - Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in the Borderlands
The National Park Service, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom (NTF) Program and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference will co-host a conference in 2017, in honor of the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, Maryland. The conference, “On the Edge of Freedom: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in the Borderlands,” will be held in Cambridge, Maryland, May 18-21, 2017. This conference will explore all aspects of the Underground Railroad in borderlands—both literal and figurative.The conference brings together scholars, site stewards, researchers, student artists, and enthusiasts from across the nation for four days of renowned speakers, panel discussions, workshops, an exhibit hall, and tours.
To read more about the conference and to register, click here.
Johns Hopkins University Press Blog Post: Slave Catching and Kidnapping, and the Struggle for Social Justice
The Johns Hopkins University Press Blog featured a post based on Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line.
Prior to the Civil War, laws and court rulings aimed at keeping nearly four million African Americans enslaved jeopardized civil rights for free blacks. Whether born into freedom or legally granted freedom from enslavement, the existence of slavery was a constant threat to that freedom. African Americans residing in Pennsylvania and close to the Mason-Dixon line, an area continually scoured by slave catchers and kidnappers, were particularly aware of the threat.
Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland takes a close-up view of the issue of slave catching and kidnapping through the framework of Thomas McCreary, a man engaged in both activities without concern for the difference, and his proslavery community. The narratives examine episodes of questionable arrests and kidnappings committed by McCreary and others. The victims had limited rights, and the proslavery laws gave advantages to their captors. But, surprisingly, despite limited rights, most of the victims in these stories did not remain victims. Those who managed to regain their freedom rather than disappear into the Deep South as slaves for life did so either through their own efforts, the efforts of their community, or the efforts of many outside their community committed to counteracting the injustice.
The full post continues here.
When the National Museum of American History and Culture opened in late September, the event was well covered but the election news was capturing much of the public’s attention. I would like to highlight some excellent news articles about the museum that readers may have missed and call attention to the museum website.
The Washington Post’s View: The African American Museum showcases the horror and the beauty of our past
The Post article includes an audio interview with Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture
Lonnie Bunch Interview: Even if you’re white, ‘the story of slavery is still your story’
The New York Times featured a richly illustrated interactive article
The National Museum of African American History and Culture:
I, Too, Sing America
For an overview of the museum, its collection, and information for planning a trip, visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture website
The orange menu box in the upper left provides navigation to various webpages on the website.
The museum has nearly 37,000 objects, and the collection page enables browsing by categories or by direct search inquiries.
Dan Rodricks, a broadcaster and Baltimore Sun journalist, produces a podcast series called Roughly Speaking for the Sun. He recently interviewed me to discuss the kidnapping of the Parker sisters in Pennsylvania a decade before the Civil War, and their community's effort to rescue them in Baltimore from the false charge of being fugitive slaves.
Carl Suppa interviewed me for a podcast on WDEL's Delaware Timeline that examined the slave catching and kidnapping issue through the story of Thomas McCreary. In a separate interview located under the same link, Carl discussed with me the research I did for the National Park Service's Network to Freedom project to verify the use of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal as an escape route for freedom seekers.
Ric Cottom, who had edited Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line to prepare it for publication, gave a brief narrative about "The Slave Catchers" for his Your Maryland program on WYPR radio in Baltimore. He uses the first story in the book to give an overview of slave catching and kidnapping.
The Southern Lancaster County Historical Society PRESENTS Stealing Freedom Along the Mason Dixon Line
Historian Milt Diggins will present the history of how Maryland and Pennsylvania debated bitterly over the differences between slave catching and kidnapping. The arguments were punctuated with sporadic violence, the most famous at nearby Christiana. The story of Thomas McCreary and his Cecil County community provide a framework to explain this controversy between Maryland and Pennsylvania about a decade before the Civil War. Maryland defended the actions of slave hunters and insisted McCreary was a hero, a bold defender of Maryland property rights who apprehended fugitive slaves. Pennsylvanians, including two governors who wanted him tried in Pennsylvania, and some Marylanders and Delawareans, saw him as a villainous kidnapper. As for McCreary, he was not concerned over the differences between capturing accused fugitives, which he did without due process, and kidnapping free blacks as long as he made a profit, and stayed out of jail.
During the Christiana treason trial, Pennsylvania lawyers will mention Thomas McCreary as an example of the borderers who forced Pennsylvanians to defend themselves. Before the trial ended, Lancaster authorities would try to arrest McCreary at Chestnut Level, where he ended his mail runs from the Elkton railroad depot. The aftermath of the trial and the McCreary story will intertwine when McCreary makes his last and most infamous kidnapping, the abduction of Rachel Parker in neighboring West Nottingham Township. The kidnapping and rescue of the Parker sisters, as well as the murder of the chief witness against McCreary, will be highlighted in this presentation about this somewhat unknown story of our local past.
For those who are wondering, Thomas McCreary was a descendant of John McCreary of Little Britain. But Thomas's brother Jesse and his children will uphold family honor and join those who will take a stand in support of Rachel Parker
Milt wrote Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland. He will be signing and selling the book (cash or check only) at the program. Milt is also the author of Images of America: Cecil County, but will not have copies of that book with him.
WHEN: Saturday, November 19, 2016, 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Solanco Historical Society Archives Bldg.
1932 Robert Fulton Highway (Route 222)
Quarryville, PA 17566
Approximately 7 miles south of Quarryville,
across from the Robert Fulton Birthplace Museum and Garden.
The program is free and open to the public.
We look forward to seeing you there!
Delaware Timeline, WDEL podcasts on Delaware history, recently posted two separate sets of podcasts on the Underground Railroad.
The C&D Canal as an Escape Route for the Underground Railroad is a podcast on how the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal provided an escape route for freedom seekers from the Chesapeake Bay region. In the podcast, I discussed my research on the use of the Canal as an escape route and to share individual stories of these escapes with podcaster Carl Suppa. The podcast is divided into four segments.
In the other podcast set, Robin Krawitz, president of the Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware talks with Carl Suppa about people, events, and places in Delaware associated with the Underground Railroad in an eight-part series.
After Carl Suppa read my book, Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland, he invited me back to the station to discuss Thomas McCreary and other slave catchers and kidnappers and their toxic contribution to the debate over slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. The podcast will soon be added to the Delaware Timeline.
The web address for the Delaware Timeline link above was changed. The above link has been corrected and is also available here.
Thu Oct 27 @ 4:00PM - 05:30PM Regional History Colloquium at the Lancaster County Historical Society - Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland
Lancaster Historical Society Events
Public historian and researcher Milt Diggins will discuss his new publication Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland at this October Regional History Colloquium. "Thomas McCreary was a slave catcher and kidnapper unconcerned for the difference between the two activities. He lived in Cecil County, Maryland, the mid-point between Philadelphia, a refuge for freedom seekers, and Baltimore, a major slave market. McCreary and his community provide a close up view of the toxic effects the debate over slavery had on the country in the years leading up to the Civil War" (Diggins). Diggins' presentation will shed light on the fascinating historical figure who earned a living hunting down escaped slaves around the Philadelphia area in the decades preceding the Civil War. McCreary's story collides with Lancaster's at the Christiana Resistance and its aftermath.
Milt Diggins, M.ed., is an independent scholar, author, public historian, and lecturer from Cecil County, Maryland. He serves on the Historical Society of Cecil County Board of Trustees and has taught in the county's public school and community college. Stealing Freedom is Diggins' second book, after Images of America: Cecil County. He has also been published in Cecil Historical Journal, Maryland Historical Magazine, and Cecil Whig.
The colloquium Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line will take place on Thursday, October 27, 2016 in Ryder Hall at LancasterHistory.org, 230 N President Avenue, Lancaster. A social gathering with refreshments and a booksigning by the author will begin at 4pm, followed by the lecture from 4:30-5:30pm. This event is free and open to the public.
Recognizing the connections between different versions of the same story and piecing together the different fragments to reveal the fuller story is part of the detective work historians engage in.
Chris Densmore, curator at the Friends Library at Swarthmore, a historian who studies Quaker involvement in the Underground Railroad, and a board member at the Kennett Square Underground Railroad Center, had noticed different versions of a story he originally knew as only a local history in the Kennett Square area. He asked several researchers if they could discover more pieces to make the story more complete.
In his request, Densmore called attention to an entry in Sydney Gay’s Record of Fugitives:
Antislavery Office Nov 24/56
Henry Brown, alias Johnson, from Maryland, where he was owned by a Mr. Levi Evans, a farmer. Johnson, says, he left Maryland for the North last Fall but met with an accident on his way from bondage, in Wilmington Del. Being well known in Wilmington, Del, through which place he was making his journey north, and fearing he would be discovered he leaped from the cars whilst in motion and in doing so came near losing his life: as it was he is a cripple for the remainder of his days here upon earth. Johnson is a single man, about 20 years old. Has 3 sisters, slaves, also in Maryland. And further Johnson saith not.
Densmore recognized this entry as another version of a well-known local history story: “the Kennett Underground Railroad Center loves the story of Johnson Hayes Walker, a freedom seeker, who had to jump from a train arriving at Wilmington, badly injured his foot, and was then taken to Kennett Square where he was given refuge by three people named Johnson, Hayes and Walker. He later returns to Kennett Square to thank his three benefactors whose names he adopted as his own.”
Densmore found the same story in William Still’s book, 751-752, mostly based on a letter from Grace Anna Lewis, who lived near Kimberton, Pennsylvania:
One case, of which the [Lewis] sisters for a time had charge, seems worthy of a somewhat more extended mention. In the fall of 1855 a slave named Johnson, who, in fleeing from bondage, had come as far as Wilmington, thinking he saw his master on the train by which he was journeying northward, sprang from the car and hurt his foot severely. The Kennett abolitionists having taken him in hand, and fearing that suspicious eyes were on him in their region, felt it necessary to send him onward without waiting for his wound to heal. He was therefore taken to the Lewises, suffering very much in his removal, and arriving in a condition which required the most assiduous care. For more than four months he remained with them, patient and gentle in his helplessness and suffering, and very thankful for the ministrations of kindness he received. He was nursed as tenderly as if his own sisters had attended him, instead of strangers, and was so carefully concealed that the nearest neighbors knew not of his being with them. Their cousin, Morris Fussell, who lived near, being a physician, they had not to depend for even medical advice upon the outside world.
As the sufferer's wound, in natural course, became offensive, the care of it could not but have been disagreeable as well as toilsome; and the feeble health of one of the sisters at that time must have made heavier the burden to be borne. But it was borne with a cheerful constancy. In a letter which Grace Anna wrote after she had attended for some time in person to the patient, with the care and sympathy which his condition demanded, and begun to feel her strength unequal to the task, in addition to her household duties, she asked a friend in Philadelphia to procure for her a trusty colored woman fit to be a helper in the work, offering higher wages than were common in that region for the services required, and adding that, indeed, they could not stand upon the amount of pay, but must have help, if it could be obtained, though not in a condition to bear undue expenditure. But, she said, the man " is unable to be removed; and if he were not, I know of no place where the charge would not be equally severe." So, in perfect keeping with her character, she just quietly regarded it as a matter of course that it should still continue where it was. And there it did continue until spring, when the man, now able to bear removal, was conveyed to the writer, and, after a time, went thence to Boston. There his foot, pronounced incurable, was amputated, and the abolitionists supplied him with a wooden limb. He then returned and spent another winter with the Lewises, assisting in the household work, and rendering services invaluable at a time when it was almost impossible to obtain female help. The next spring, hoping vainly to recover in a warmer climate from the disease induced by the drain his wounded foot had made upon his system, he went to Hayti, and there died; happy, we may well believe, to have escaped from slavery, though only to have won scarely two years of freedom as an invalid and a cripple.
Robert C. Smedley wrote about the incident in his book, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania in 1883 (page 178-9). His account was similar to Still’s account, but Smedley claimed Walker immigrated to Jamaica and died there. Densmore mentioned that in additional to these two conflicting accounts of Walker’s death, Gay’s account implies Walker recovered and lived a longer life.
Intrigued by Densmore request to look into the story to see what could be added or clarified, I zeroed in on one specific question Densmore raised: could his owner, Levi Evans of Maryland, be found? I apparently did find him, and shared the information with Densmore. Evans was the name of a prominent family in Cecil County. There was a Levi H. Evans who owned land in the Principio Furnace area, and close to the tracks of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, according to the 1858 Martinet Map of Cecil County. Principio Furnace is adjacent to Perryville, and both towns had PW&B RR train stations; Walker could have boarded the train at either stop, or possibly along the track between the two towns. After I shared this information, Densmore checked Ancestry for 1860, and found Levi H. Evans listed in the slavery schedule as the enslaver of two young slaves, so Densmore and I are reasonably confident that this was the Levi Evans that Walker had escaped from.
This story was brought to my attention about a year after confirming Underground Railroad activity on the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad at Perryville (MD), for the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom project. Freedom seekers used that railroad to pass through or flee from the Perryville area, and Walker’s story is one more example.
Right to Recapture Fugitive Slaves vs. Struggle for Social Justice: Illuminating American History through Regional History
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities had requested a guest post about my book and the process behind its writing. I focused on the theme of the conflict between those who exercised an unrestricted right to recapture slaves and those who struggled for social justice.
Stealing Freedom Along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland was published by the Maryland Historical Society. The narratives presented occurred in the Philadelphia–Wilmington–Baltimore corridor and offer a close-up view of slave catching and kidnapping that adds insight into how this issue contributed to the sectional hostility leading to Civil War. Prigg v. Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law of 1847; the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; trials in Philadelphia, including the first two federal trials held in that city under the new fugitive slave law; the career of Philadelphia’s most notorious slave catcher, George F. Alberti; and the Christiana Riot and subsequent treason trial—all of these fold neatly into the story of Thomas McCreary and his community. Historians have noted a connection between the slaying of Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch in Christiana and the hanging of a witness against McCreary in Baltimore, but my research revealed additional significant connections between the treason trial and McCreary that had been overlooked.
The rest of the article can be read on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities blog at this link.
Why the curious distribution of recorded freedom seekers on the map in the previously post? This question calls for an answer, but in the absence of a research project, I will settle for some reasonable explanations. Keep in mind that this is just a sampling of successful escapes from Cecil County. These freedom seekers escaped from enslavement in the county and entered into an organized Underground Railroad that led to the offices of William Still in Philadelphia and Sydney Gay in New York around 1853 to 1859 (Gay’s records were for 1855-1856).
The first explanation appears to give the complete answer for the pattern. Sassafras Neck between the Sassafras and Bohemia rivers had the highest concentration of enslaved in the county, and the area from the Bohemia River and Elkton also contained a sizable population in bondage. On the other hand, the northern election districts in the county had a small, dwindling slave population. But this answer does not preclude additional reasons for the pattern. Neighboring New Castle County upends the distribution pattern based on the slave population. New Castle County had the smallest percentage of enslaved in Delaware, and Sussex County at the southernmost part of the state had the highest. And yet, according to Eric Foner in Gateway to Freedom, of eleven freedom seekers identified from (specific counties in) Delaware, all but one came from New Castle County. So this suggests that population percentage alone does not give a full explanation for the pattern, and additional factors should be considered as well.
The high number of escapes from between Elkton and the Sassafras River, and the Delaware escapes coming almost exclusively from neighboring New Castle County may have a shared reason. The number of escapes in this combined area may be a testament to the effectiveness of the Wilmington segment of the Underground Railroad, and to Thomas Garrett and the agents that coordinated with him. Many of the freedom seekers from the eastern side of Cecil County likely connected with the Underground Railroad operating out of Delaware and then were assisted on their journey to Philadelphia. Reviewing many of the maps in the previous posts would show a sizable number of Cecil County freedom seekers fled from locations near the Delaware border.
Even with a small population of enslaved in the northern part of Cecil County, why is it that only Henry Fields arrived at Still’s office from that part of the county? The fact that Fields lived less than a mile from a Quaker meetinghouse and ended up in the underground network may be more than coincidence. But what about others in the northern election districts?
As Larry Gara points out in Liberty Line, not every freedom seeker entered the Underground Railroad network, but managed their own escape into the north, and then may have received help or continued on their own. Fleeing into the free state of Pennsylvania was a matter of a few miles for those enslaved in the northern election districts of Cecil County. A difference in the agricultural economy and the fact that a slave could easily disappear into Pennsylvania accounts for why many farmers in this part of the county preferred to rely on hiring free blacks rather using an enslaved work force. The settlement of Maryland fugitives in Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, is well documented Settling on the north side of the Mason-Dixon line was expedient, and kept the fugitive close to his or her family. But it was also risky, and the closer one settled near the line, the riskier the decision. Slave catchers and kidnappers like Thomas McCreary continuously scoured the area, and informers, white and black, betrayed neighbors. Others located further from the line, in the areas of Columbia in Lancaster County, the urban areas of Philadelphia, and cities across the Delaware River in New Jersey. But the danger of recapture remained, and increased after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The Susquehanna River, Cecil County’s western boundary, offered an attractive route to freedom. As noted, some settled in the area of Columbia, Pennsylvania. But the waterway flowed from further north, from the state of New York, and another branch from the rural areas of central Pennsylvania. Freedom seekers could enter into the Underground Railroad at various locations along the along the river and western New York, and they would not have been recorded by William Still or Sydney Gay. In the 1850s, with the new fugitive slave act in effect, the only save haven for freedom seekers was outside the boundaries of the United States. For many who arrived in western New York, Canada was the logical next stop to secure their newly won freedom.
To answer the question about the distribution pattern of Cecil County freedom seekers recorded by Still and Gay, all these factors should be considered: the distribution of the enslaved population, the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad in Delaware, a free state at the northern border, and an alternative escape route that extends into western New York, and offers the chance to enter Canada from there.
Freedom Seekers and Freedom Stealers along the Mason - Dixon Line
Milt Diggins, M. ed., an independent scholar, author, public historian, and public speaker.