The Film: Interview Transcripts: Charles Blockson

Charles Blockson, historian on
Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad

Pennsylvania is such an important state.  It’s a key state for many reasons, because it’s the buffer between the North and the South, divided by the imaginary Mason-Dixon Line and also because it is close to the eastern shore, between Delaware and Maryland, both of which were slave states.  The most famous Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman, who lived about 20 miles in Maryland from where my people came, made her way to Philadelphia in 1849, and thus, began her journey to freedom.  Some say she delivered over 300 runaways, or self-liberators as I like to call them, to Canada.  So, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania is key in the Underground Railroad because of its large free African community, the role of the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Unitarians and others. 

 Quakers on a whole through the years have been given most of the credit for the Underground Railroad.  However, through my research and writing various books, I found that there was only a small group of friends, or Quakers involved, such as Lucretia Mott, in Pennsylvania, and her husband, James. Thomas Garrett, originally from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, moved to Delaware in Wilmington, and John Greenleaf Whittier, who came from Massachusetts to edit the Pennsylvania Freeman. So you had other groups besides the Quakers, such as the Unitarians and the Native Americans, who were involved even earlier.  

Because most of Pennsylvania’s population was concentrated in eastern cities like the international seaport of Philadelphia or Lancaster, Allentown and Reading, most people do not know or realize the significance of what happened in the western part of the state.  I know when I traveled across the state, I was fascinated to learn that there are many stories.

Almost every county in Pennsylvania had traces.  For instance, I was shocked years ago when I came across an old newspaper.  The Elk County Advocate stated, “a colored woman passed through our way the other day.  She refused bread and water.  We think she’s crazy.”  And several weeks later, the paper appeared again and stated that the colored woman who passed through our way a few weeks ago was a runaway slave.  She made her way to Canada. 

People came into the eastern area first and then they branched out.  Not to say that African people didn’t come with the French in western Pennsylvania, they did.  Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, which was known as Allegheny City, was very important.  Another thing I found in my 35 years of researching the Underground Railroad both here in Pennsylvania, throughout the country and Canada, is the importance of rivers and mountains and streams and small hamlets, where the landscape protected the passengers on the Underground Railroad.  Quite naturally, many of the African-Americans who escaped on the Underground Railroad settled in Philadelphia or Chester, where they could blend in.  Some stayed there.  Others went over to Bellefonte in Centre County, Bedford, Somerset, Westmorland, Indiana, Armstrong, Butler and Mercer Counties before going further north.  All 67 counties in the Commonwealth had a connection with the Underground Railroad.  You would take the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio Rivers and follow all the way up to the Erie Canal and Lake Erie or Lake Ontario, staying in small communities along the way.

Can you imagine, even today, as you’re driving in automobiles, covering across the great state of Pennsylvania, the mountains, the rivers, the hills, it takes hours it seems and you wonder, how did these people make it?  How did they make it over the hills and the rivers in the snow, in the rain, and the huts with bloodhounds searching, and treacherous spies.  Black spies and white spies.  The Underground Railroad was not a romantic thing per se, institution.  People died.  People were taken back. 

Tears came to my eyes about 30 years ago when I was going to Linglestown, up near Dauphin County in the Harrisburg area, to see a little marker in the hillside where a baby had died while his parents were trying to escape on the Underground Railroad.

his personal journey

slave revolts

slavery and the Liberty Bell

children and the UGRR

preserving UGRR sites