Celebrating courage: Cemetery tour honors abolitionists
● By Richard Gaw
In 1853, 56 Quakers were asked to leave the Kennett Meeting House, because it was thought that their views on slavery were too extreme regarding what was generally considered an acceptable practice of American life.
They settled less than a mile up the road -- Route 1, to be exact -- and in 1855, they settled at what is now known as the Progressive Friends Meeting House, on land owned by Quakers John and Hannah Cox, who were among those asked to leave the Kennett Meeting House. Almost immediately, it became a central meeting place for participants in the Underground Railroad, who hid and transported slaves to freedom. Years later, it became a place where the movements of temperance and women's rights were allowed to grow.
Recently, the Kennett Township Historical Commission took more than 30 history buffs on a tour of the Longwood Cemetery across the street from the house -- now owned by Longwood Gardens -- to honor the men and women who sacrificed their safety for their ideals. The tour was the latest in a series of Town Tours & Village Walks.
Led by Kennett Historical Commission members, visitors toured seven graveside stations in the Longwood Cemetery to learn about the abolitionists who are buried there. At the resting place of John and Hannah Cox, Bob Merhar spoke about the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, which complicated the abolitionist movement. Under the law, officials were required to arrest people suspected of being a runaway slaves, and officials who did not were penalized at the modern-day equivalent of $28,000. The law also prohibited a suspected slave from asking for a jury trial or testimony, and any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months of imprisonment and a fine, also the equivalent of $28,000 in today's dollars.
"The proximity of the Cox home to the Mason-Dixon Line, and the boundaries between a free state and a slave state, made the meeting house an important station in the transporting of slaves," Merhar said. "The Coxes would feed and hide the slaves in the cellar of the meeting house."
The tour also made a stop at the grave of the Barnard family, who established their home in nearby Pocopson as a "station" on the Underground Railroad, as did the Pennock family, who helped hide runaway slaves.
"The building itself is very progressive, as were the people who came through here," said Sara Meadows, chairwoman of the Kennett Township Historical Commission. "They may have come from other walks of life and religions, but they all came here with a common goal of trying to do something about slavery. They then worked on all kinds of reforms, such as Native American laws and women's rights. This tour demonstrates that they were willing to sacrifice their livelihoods and reputations to help transport the slaves through the Underground Railroad."
The tour also introduced the story of Castner Hanway, a Quaker who served as a lead defendant in a court case that tested northern support for the Fugitive Slave Act. He was arrested for treason when he refused to provide aid to slave hunters, and eventually was found not guilty and released.
To the Commission members, preparing the tour was like opening a giant vault of area history.
"When we began researching these men and women, we were all so enthusiastic about learning more, and we had to really work hard to make their stories brief," Meadows said. "They're all a part of the rich history of Kennett Township and beyond, and we are proud to tell their stories."
Seven additional walking tours have been scheduled this summer, starting with "Under the Ground at Yellow Springs" on July 9, and ending with "West Whiteland Township: 250 Years of History by Trolley" on Aug. 20. For a complete listing, visit the Chester County Historical Society's website at www.chesco.org/planning/towntours, or contact Karen Marshall at 610-344-6923, or firstname.lastname@example.org.