Underground Railroad hiker welcomed in Kennett
By Steven Hoffman
A sturdy trekker who has been tracing the Underground Railroad trails of abolitionist Harriet Tubman received an enthusiastic reception during his most recent journey as he arrived in southern Chester County from Delaware on Sunday.
Ken Johnston, 59, of West Philadelphia, is no newcomer to taking long hikes through and around historic places. In recent years, he has hiked across the width of Massachusetts, through Ireland from Belfast to Derry, and along the Martin Luther King Jr.’s route from Selma, Alabama, to Memphis, Tennessee, among others.
He didn’t always hold that desire, but in his adult and professional life the dream grew inside him.
Years ago, he said, he had a job that kept him inside all day. He said he came to a point where he said to himself, “I’ve got to get outside and walk.”
And that’s exactly what he did – with intense passion.
His current excursion called “Walk to Freedom” began in Cambridge, Maryland, and aimed to conclude in Philadelphia. It traces the routes abolitionist Harriet Tubman took to bring southern slaves north to eventual safe refuge in Canada.
Tubman was born into slavery in the late 1800s. She herself escaped and later carried out 13 missions, rescuing about 70 slaves northward. She used a network of anti-slavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad to do so.
Many of those helpers and the routes she took were in the Kennett Square area.
Johnston followed a strenuous schedule as he hiked the Walk to Freedom. Given that hunters of escaped slaves in those days were always lurking to earn rewards for their captures, Tubman traveled at night when she and her charges were less vulnerable (or visible). She also took less traveled routes, often away from heavily traveled roadways to complete her missions.
Consequently, she walked through southern Chester County, which borders on then-slave states of Delaware and Maryland.
On Sunday, that route led Johnston and his entourage (including his family and dog) from Auburn Valley State Park in Yorklyn, Delaware, through State Line Woods Preserve along Round Hill Road in Kennett Township.
Ordinarily, Johnston said, his walks receive very little attention along the way.
But in this particular instance, in anticipation of crossing the state line, he made a call ahead of time to local businesswoman Lynn Sinclair, who is spearheading the creation of a Kennett Heritage Center. Her dream is to showcase, among other things, the historical presence of the Underground Railroad in the town.
With that information in mind, Sinclair rolled out the red carpet and put together an event that Johnston and the local historians found impressive.
Not only did Sinclair greet Johnston cordially, but she also set up a reception, a bus trip of local underground sites, a light lunch and a few educational lectures along the way.
Johnston was greeted warmly as he arrived on the scene at the State Line Woods Preserve.
Those who had awaited him found he was eager to share his stories with them, not only at the arrival point, but throughout the bus tour that followed.
Johnston said he began the hike shortly after Christmas in Cambridge, Maryland, hiking 20-mile stretches along varied routes, most often in the area of what are now the routes 202, 52 and 41.
Well-schooled in the history of the Underground Railroad, Johnston said what he learned by walking the paths was that there were a lot of streams and small waterways to cross.
He was asked how accounts of Tubman and the activities of slave rescues that took place long ago were retrieved. He said much of the information was kept secret for protection, but some was sparsely recorded occasionally in family Bibles. He also said that inasmuch as slaves were considered “property,” some public records from the time could be found in old newspapers and municipal files.
The bus tour took Johnston and his audience to the Bucktoe Cemetery, the Robert and Rachel Pierce Lamborn farm, the Longwood Progressive Friends Meetinghouse, the Fussell Building and the Underground Railroad mural on Cypress Street.
The first stop on the bus tour was the Bucktoe Cemetery on Buck Toe Road in Kennett Township. It is a humble and small black graveyard with markers that go back to the mid-1800s. Its care is under the direction of Crystal Crampton of New Garden.
There, the guests surveyed the stones and some made crayon rubbings of the carvings from the stones to paper.
After the visit there, the bus drove through areas of back roads where the riders were witness to the Robert and Rachel Lamborn farm that had been an Underground Railroad stop.
Then they arrived at the former Longwood Progressive Friends Meetinghouse, which sits in front of the entrance to Longwood Gardens and has evolved into the Brandywine Valley Visitors Center.
Terence Maguire, a Kennett Square Underground Railroad Center board member and editor of its newsletter The Lantern, said the meetinghouse was one of many in the area during the 19th century, but, in contrast to its neighbors in the region, it supported active participation in abolitionist activities including the Underground Railroad.
He said that in modern times, many Civil Rights leaders have spoken there.
Next, heading west along Baltimore Pike, the bus stopped at the Fussell House, which is restored near McFarlan Road near recently constructed buildings.
It is said that some 2000 fugitive slaves passed through Fussell’s house, “The Pines,” and nearly every distinguished abolitionist to come to Kennett Square was entertained there at one time or another.
Traveling back into Kennett Square, the bus stopped at the parking lot on West State Street that abuts the building on which there is a large mural of Harriet Tubman.
The mural has covered the building for years, but it is destined for demolition soon to make room for the planned new Kennett Library.
Mary Hutchins, who is a member of the board of the Kennett Heritage Center and a development associate for the capital campaign for the new library, said the mural would not be lost, however. She explained that it will be reproduced in the new library building.
The event concluded at the future Kennett Heritage Center at 120 North Union Street for lunch. This was the former office of attorney Scudder Stevens and was purchased by Sinclair. It sits on the west side of the street at the corner with West Linden Street.
Sinclair is in the midst of converting the building into the heritage center, with one area in it set aside for Kennett area Underground Railroad information and graphics.
Hutchins said the progress is in the planning and permitting stages, but, “Don’t be surprised to see something this summer,” she said.