Kennett's Underground Railroad Center
Antebellum Kennett Square played an important role in the Underground Railroad, the network of meeting places, secret routes and safe houses that were used by slaves to escape into free states and Canada in the early- to mid-1800s. The slaves were often helped along their journey by abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause and would provide them with the shelter, food, and money that they would need until they could move on to the next stop. The Underground Railroad relied on both white and black abolitionists, religious communities, and other groups to help slaves on the path to freedom. Conductors guided fugitives to safe houses known as stations. Escaped slaves would move along the route from one station to the next, steadily making the way north. There were dozens of Underground Railroad stations within an eight-mile radius of Kennett Square—possibly one of the largest concentration of underground railroad stations in the nation—making Kennett Square a hotbed of abolitionist activity.
The Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC) was formed in 1998. Their mission is to preserve that heritage and engage the public about historic abolitionists and freedom seekers of this area and beyond. Members of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center work to identify buildings recognized as stations on the Underground Railroad, and encourage and assist the owners to have these home recognized on a local, state, or national level. Members also organize tours, take part in public-speaking activities, and publish works that aim to educate people about the unique local heritage.
According to Michele Sullivan, a board member of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC) and committee member Loraine Lucas, the true extent of Kennett Square's role in the larger Underground Railroad is not well known to most people, even among local residents and descendants of those who actively participated. That’s why educating the public, both local residents and visitors, is such an important part of the mission.
Why was Kennett Square such a hotbed for abolitionist activity? There are a number of reasons, starting with its location. Pennsylvania was a free state, and many escaped slaves from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia fled here on their way to the north. Some of the most important stations along the secretive Underground Railroad were strategically located in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Some of the farmhouses in the area had secret hideaways where slaves could be concealed during the day, and then moved on to the next station during the night. The border between Pennsylvania and Maryland has been described as the “fissure point” between free and slave states. Fugitive slaves reaching underground stations in Pennsylvania were in great peril, but they were also that much closer to freedom.
In addition to its location, the Kennett area also had a relatively large free black population, so the escaped slaves were able to blend in more easily than they could in some other places. The 1860 census revealed there were about 6,000 free blacks living in Chester County, which was about 8 percent of the county's total population. The largest Quaker population in Pennsylvania was also centered around Kennett Square, and Quakers were known to support the slaves' efforts for freedom. Many Quakers helped directly, while others could be trusted not to turn their neighbors in for helping the escaping slaves. Quakers were most definitely not going to turn escaping slaves in themselves.
“It was well known that Quakers would be helpful,” Sullivan explained.
Some of the more prominent families in the Kennett area were known to be supporters of the effort to help slaves escape. These families included the Coxes, the Mendenhalls, the Lamborns, the Taylors, the Pennocks, the Barnards, and the Merediths.
One of the homes in the Kennett Square area that was used to hide slaves was the Oakdale House on East Hillendale Road in Chadds Ford. Owned by Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall, the house was built in 1840. It included several features, including a hidden square-shaped room in the carriage house, that were designed to hide escaping slaves. Lucas said that Thomas Garrett in nearby Wilmington, Del. sent many escaping slaves up Route 52 for safe passage. Garrett and others would have sent escapees to the Oakdale House because it was just six miles from Delaware. They knew that the Mendenhalls could be counted on to get the job done. Isaac Mendenhall was the secretary of the Chester County Anti-Slavery Society. Dinah Mendenhall was a delegate to many anti-slavery societies, and she was part of a small group from Longwood Progressive Friends who spoke to President Abraham Lincoln about ending slavery.
According to Sullivan and Lucas, Garrett played an important role in making Kennett Square a hotbed of abolitionist activities. Garrett moved to Wilmington, Del. in 1822 and spent the next 40 years helping runaway slaves. He had a strong network of people that he could rely on, including relatives in the Kennett area who he knew could be trusted to keep the slaves safe.
Fugitives from all over the south would travel to Garrett’s house, and he would help them travel north—by boat, by wagon, or on foot. On several occasions Garrett helped Harriet Tubman make return trips to plantations in lower Maryland to rescue slaves. Tubman, one of the enduring heroes in this chapter of American history, was born into slavery in Maryland. She successfully escaped at 29 years old. She was determined to help others gain their freedom, so she would guide escaped slaves to freedom time and time again. She had so much success at this that, in 1852, a bounty was placed on her head. Despite the bounty, she was never caught. During the Civil War, Tubman was a Union nurse and a cook. She later served as an armed guide and spy. At the end of the war, she settled in New York State. The Longwood Progressive Friends Meetinghouse and Cemetery, a National Park Service Network to Freedom site, is a designated stop on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway which extends from her birthplace in Maryland and goes through the places where she and other abolitionists assisted fugitive slaves on their way to freedom.
Most of the work of the stationmasters in the Underground Railroad was accomplished in secret—it had to be. At the time, posses of slave catchers would ride up and capture any African Americans they could—whether they were slaves or not.
“It really wasn’t safe to be here in a lot of ways,” Sullivan said.
Despite the dangers, estimates suggest that, by 1850, over 100,000 slaves had escaped to freedom thanks to the work of people like Dr. Bartholomew Fussell, another prominent conductor on the Underground Railroad in the area. Fussell lived in a large home that was later owned by two other abolitionists that was called “The Pines.” It was situated about one mile east of Kennett Square. In his early life, while he lived in Maryland, Fussell taught slaves how to read and write. When he moved to Kennett Square, he opened his house to escaping slaves, and records indicate that throughout his life he helped as many as 2,000 people during their escapes.
William Barnard was a devout Quaker and abolitionist who assisted many runaways. William’s brother Eusebius Barnard and many others in the extended family also helped out the slaves, sometimes even hiring them so that they would have money to help them get to their next stop.
Another important local figure was John Cox, who served as the president of the Kennett Anti-Slavery Society. Both he and his wife, Hannah, were frequent delegates to state and national abolitionist conventions. The Coxes were close friends and contemporaries with William Lloyd Garrison and hosted him at their home. They sold a portion of their land on which the Longwood Progressive Meeting House was built in 1855.
The Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends had liberal ideals, including the idea that slavery was unacceptable. It was founded on May 22, 1853 by abolitionist Quakers who had broken away or who had been disowned by their meetings because of their deep involvement in the Underground Railroad.
Sullivan explained that some Quakers opposed abolitionist efforts because this activity was deemed “too worldly,” and this led to some Quakers being disowned. They felt Quakers should restrict themselves to spiritual matters, rather than breaking the law.
The Longwood Progressive Meeting included many of the major people involved with the Underground Railroad in the Kennett Square area, including Isaac and Dinah Mendenhall, the William and Eusebius Barnard families, and John and Hannah Cox. Harriet Beecher Stowe, an abolitionist and author, may have based some of the characters of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on local residents.
The Longwood Progressive Meeting was responsible for bringing in many of the famous national leaders of various reform issues —people like Thomas Garrett, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, William Henry Channing, and Frederick Douglass. These speakers would draw large crowds that filled the Meeting House, which is said to have had a seating capacity of approximately 300 with overflow crowds noted to have gathered on the lawn.
After the Civil War, members of Longwood Progressive Meeting concentrated their efforts on other humanitarian concerns, such as women's rights and temperance. The Progressive Quakers continued to meet at Longwood Meeting until 1940, when the meeting was discontinued. Pierre du Pont purchased the Meeting House and later it was leased to the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau to serve as the Brandywine Valley Tourism Information Center. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, a National Park Service Network to Freedom site and a designated stop on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Today, the Kennett Underground Railroad Center's guided tours start at the Longwood Progressive Meeting building.
Lucas said that they are fortunate that some of the homes of people who offered shelter to escaping slaves are still around and owned by private citizens. Some of the homeowners who do research about the houses’ histories discover new pieces of local history, which is always exciting.
Sullivan has been doing research on the Underground Railroad in the Kennett Square area. One aspect that the research has been focusing on is the African American abolitionists who played an often overlooked role in the Underground Railroad.
“They never get the credit they deserve,” Sullivan explained. There is no way to know exactly how many African American abolitionists were at work in the area, in part because they had to keep the work a secret or risk being discovered.
Sullivan was assisted on some of her research by Megan Del Mar, a graduate student in history at a university in Washington D.C.
“One of the things that we’ve discovered,” Sullivan said, “is that there are entire networks that we don’t know about.”
As new information is discovered, the Kennett Underground Railroad Center’s volunteers will do everything they can to share the information through a variety of programs and educational initiatives.
The Kennett Underground Railroad Center offers bus tours on the third Sunday of the month in May, June, July, August, and September. Private bus tours can also be arranged. Packets for self-guided tours are available at the Brandywine Valley Tourism Information Center.
The Kennett Underground Railroad Center (KURC) is a 501(c)(3) and relies on donations for its operations. For more information, call 484-544-5070, mail PO Box 202, Kennett Square, PA 19348 or email email@example.com. Information is also available at www.kennettundergroundrr.org and on the organization’s Facebook page.
SLUG: Kennett Underground Railroad story
The contributions of Mary Dugan
Mary Dugan was a dedicated local historian and a founding member of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center. She spent much of her life researching the Underground Railroad in the Kennett Square area, and compiled a large number of files about local and national abolitionists and proponents of the Underground Railroad. Shortly before she passed away, she requested that her files be scanned and made available to the public. Her contributions to the Kennett Underground Railroad Center are substantial.
“None of this would be possible without Mary Dugan,” Kennett Underground Railroad Center board member Loraine Lucas explained. A quote from your interview with Lynne Sinclair about Mary is more apprpriate here.
A plaque in Dugan’s memory has been set up at Sinclair’s Cafe. A plaque on the back of a wooden bench reads, “In memory of local historian and founder of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center Mary Larkin Dugan 1935-2013.”
The Harriet Tubman mural at 120 South Willow Street in Kennett Square came about when business owner Darryl Hall commissioned artists Dave Mass and Joey Gothelf to paint the mural in 2010. It depicts Harriet Tubman leading a group of freedom seekers toward the North Star. Those names in the corner relate to the Johnson Walker Hayes story. One night in 1850, Dr. Johnson was called to the home of James H. Walker, a free black man who lived just a few blocks away on South Union Street. There, he found a fugitive slave who had badly injured his foot when he jumped from a train to avoid capture in the Wilmington station. The slave was hidden for several weeks in the Walker home and cared for by the Walker family, Esther Hayes, and Dr. Johnson until word came that someone was on the fugitive's trail. The fugitive was spirited out of the Kennett area and eventually settled in Boston. Several years after the Civil War, a well-dressed black man walked into Dr. Johnson's office and identified himself as the slave that Dr. Johnson had attended to years earlier. He was now going by the name of Johnson Walker Hayes, in honor of his three benefactors in Kennett Square.
Photo by Steven Hoffman
The Eusebius Barnard House in Pocopson Township.