The Film

Why we decided to make Safe Harbor

Romantic tales of bounty hunters, secret tunnels and border crossings capture the imagination of everyone who hears about the Underground Railroad, and yet little is known about the everyday people, places and events which contributed to one of the greatest survival stories of all time.  A two-year journey through slave narratives, newspapers, documents and diaries brought us to Safe Harbor, a program about the Underground Railroad in Western Pennsylvania.

Until now, most published history of the Underground Railroad has been told from the point of view of northern white abolitionists, with little understanding of the African American experience.  The focus has been on the Freedom Trail in Ohio and New York, with little or no information about Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia.  Yet enslaved Africans themselves mounted aggressive efforts of escape and resistance, long before the abolitionist movement began.  And there is growing evidence that free black communities in western Pennsylvania played a significant role in their passage. 

The Underground Railroad did not stop at county lines or state borders, so it was important to place our story in a wider context. At the core of the Underground Railroad is an argument about the nature of American slavery and the moral and cultural dilemma it presented.  Never before had communities faced such a divisive issue, and western Pennsylvania is no exception.  While anti-slavery societies and abolitionists abounded, so did slave owners and bounty hunters.  Colonization societies, intent on removing African Americans to Liberia, had chapters in western Pennsylvania long after they were disbanded in other states.

Still, despite threats of fines, imprisonment and even death, residents formed a secret network to assist and protect the fleeing slaves.  Western Pennsylvania’s conductors include the famous and the forgotten, but they all shared the same noble purpose.  From Cynthia Catlin Miller who led the Ladies Fugitive Aid Society in Sugar Grove, to John Brown, the fiery abolitionist who owned a tannery in Crawford County, from free black communities to middle class white society, families and individuals sheltered thousands of freedom seekers. Some eventually made it across Lake Erie to the “Promised Land,” and some decided to stay.  Others were not so fortunate – they were captured and returned to slavery.  Regardless of the outcome, the Underground Railroad speaks to the power of freedom and justice.

We hope our program will develop a greater appreciation for the African American experience, inspire the preservation of important cultural landmarks and promote heritage tourism throughout our region.   More importantly, we hope the project will show how blacks and whites can reach across the racial divide to achieve a higher purpose – a positive message today as the nation, and our community, struggle with the complex issues of race.

Lisa and Rich Gensheimer, Producers         

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