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
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
Pennsylvania, outside of
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
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
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.
About the Participants
Behind the Scenes