The exhibition of a statue of Harriet Tubman in Lancaster city’s Southeast brings to mind something that was never taught during my school years: the Underground Railroad.

It is a quintessential American story because individuals risked their lives and property to help the underdog. Here, the underdogs were African freedom-seekers who chose the dangers of travel through hostile territory in which they could be apprehended, detained and sent back to plantations, where they faced mutilation as an object lesson to deter others from fleeing a life of brutality and bondage.

As with most historical phenomena, the exact dimensions of the Underground Railroad are a matter of speculation and dispute. When did it start? Who exactly were the main actors? How many Africans were helped? How did this system of stations and station masters — generally described as a network of secret routes and safe houses — actually function?

In answering these questions, it is necessary to separate myth from reality. Some questions may never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is at least one area of inquiry for which there are some substantial answers: the role that Lancaster County played in this activity.

Columbia’s role

Some sources maintain that the term “Underground Railroad” was coined here by a person sent to capture a freedom-seeker; that person discovered that his quarry had disappeared as if on an “underground railway.” (Note: The railroad was not established in our area until the 1830s and freedom-seekers passed through here at least two generations before that date.)

Wilbur H. Siebert, the first professional historian to research the topic, establishes a link to our area by repeating the narrative developed in 1883 by Robert C. Smedley in his book (“History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania”). Smedley’s book, in turn, likely drew on essays penned by local historian Samuel Evans in 1870. All of these early sources identify Columbia as the major entry point to the Northern states for freedom-seekers.

The reason why Columbia was so important is self-evident when one considers that before the Civil War, Columbia had the largest Black urban population in Lancaster County.

Seeking anonymity, freedom-seekers would naturally congregate in areas where there were others who resembled them. Also, a large number of Black Columbia residents were originally from the South: Between 1819 and 1822, Columbia’s Black population of fewer than 30 inhabitants was reinforced by 156 emancipated individuals from Virginia plantations.

These new arrivals not only created a community for themselves by starting businesses and erecting churches, they also provided assistance to other members of their race seeking freedom.

Still’s account

Of all the narratives about local Underground Railroad activity, the only one that places Black involvement in a proper light is the 1872 book, “The Underground Railroad,” published by William Still.

Still was a native of New Jersey, but his parents had been enslaved in the South. According to Temple University’s Still family archival resources, Still’s father bought his freedom and his mother escaped slavery in Maryland.

Beginning in 1837, Still worked for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. After the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the society organized its “vigilance committee” to actively assist freedom-seekers. Still was in charge. He was required to manage the flow of individuals seeking help and he far exceeded what his employers could have expected: He transcribed the story of each individual, describing what he or she had experienced in slavery and how each managed to escape. Such information was dangerous and so Still carefully concealed the information and did not publish it until 1872.

What is remarkable is what this first-person publication of the Underground Railroad reveals about Lancaster County. Appended to the oral interviews, Still published sketches of the major station masters. In Lancaster County, only Daniel Gibbons, a Quaker who resided in Upper Leacock Township, and the abolitionist William Whipper are mentioned. (Gibbons’ granddaughter, Marianna Gibbons Brubaker, helped to edit Smedley’s book on the Underground Railroad.)

Whipper and Smith

Whipper (1804-76) was born in Drumore Township of an indentured servant mother, a Black woman named Nancy, and a white member of the local elite, probably the Rev. Francis Latta. Although biracial, William Whipper attained a remarkable education for the time and appeared at many events in which free Africans sought to improve their situation through group action.

Whipper even authored an address on the use of nonviolent means to achieve social change 10 or so years before Henry Thoreau wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” According to the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Whipper’s address “has been highly praised for its early allusions to what became some of the same nonviolent strategies utilized during the civil rights movements of the 1960s.”

Whipper was married to Harriet Smith, the half-sister of his business partner, Stephen Smith, an African-American entrepreneur.

Smith lived in Paxtang (now a suburb of Harrisburg) and was purchased as an indentured servant by Gen. Thomas Boude, a former Revolutionary War officer from Lancaster County, in 1801 when Smith was just a child.

Eventually, Smith not only purchased his freedom, but the freedom of his future wife and the lumberyard he had managed for Boude.

Smith was quite successful before meeting Whipper — so much so that he was a prominent target of the race riots that erupted in Columbia in 1834. The riots aimed to scare Smith and other Black property owners into selling their holdings below market value.

Whipper moved to Columbia circa 1838 to represent Smith, his business partner, and after 1841, Whipper managed the Columbia operations of Smith & Whipper, a company that reportedly grossed $50,000 annually in the 1850s.

In a letter published by Still, Whipper recounted his involvement in the Underground Railroad. Whipper identified the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania — an 1842 U.S. Supreme Court case concerning a Pennsylvania law that prohibited the extradition of Blacks to other states for enslavement — as the starting point for greater activity, because that law made the commonwealth more attractive to freedom-seekers.

Whipper stated that from that point, until 1861, he spent $1,000 annually of his own funds helping freedom-seekers. Together with his partner he operated more than two dozen railroad cars, and they built hidden compartments in some of the railroad cars to conceal freedom-seekers — likely from about 1840 until the late 1850s, when the state assumed total control of the railroad system. Apparently none of the hidden passengers was captured.

Little is known about Whipper’s activity but he stated that he helped about 400 individuals.

“The great law of love forbids our doing aught against the interests of our fellow men,” Whipper wrote in his address arguing for nonviolent resistance. He pointed to abolitionists fighting with the weapons of “reason and moral truth.” He was, of course, among them.

There were other free Africans who were active in the Underground Railroad and their stories should also be celebrated. Lancaster County’s contributions to America’s first civil rights struggle should not be forgotten.

Leroy T. Hopkins, Ph.D., is a Millersville University professor emeritus of foreign languages, a board member and former president of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania.

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