Underground Railroad in Cumberland, Lancaster, Dauphin
More than Harriet Tubman
February is Black History Month across the nation, but there’s plenty to do to commemorate this important time of year right here in Central Pennsylvania. This area has significant ties to the Underground Railroad, the vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada.
Like any useful history lesson, the story of slavery in Cumberland County involves a lot more than reading a dusty history book.
Children can get a firsthand, unfiltered look into the past through the Cumberland County Historical Society (CCHS) archives — handwritten letters and government records that go back as far as 1750. It’s a very different, tangible experience from the libraries and Internet research that children usually use. Historic photos show life in Carlisle and throughout the region.
Or, they can go to the old Cumberland County Courthouse to reenact the trials that resulted from the slave riots in 1847. The reenactment is part of the CCHS’s black history trunk shows and walking tours, available for booking by teachers and members of the community.
For an even more realistic experience, children can play the roles of escaped slaves during an Underground Railroad tag game in Boiling Springs. CCHS educational curator Janeal Jaroh leads participants along the actual path on which escapees walked to an island in the Yellow Breeches Creek where slaves hid.
“They all have price tags, and that becomes a big discussion,” says Jaroh.
To keep the mood from becoming too bleak, she includes activities like a game of limbo along with the lesson. The limbo, it turns out, was invented by Caribbean slaves who created the dance inside the cramped, rocking confines of slave ships.
“You would think after the experience of being picked up, sold, carted off, that people would give up hope, but here’s this raucous, full-of-life full beat, and now we use [limbo] at roller rinks without any idea of where it came from,” Jaroh says.
Many slaves who escaped took their first steps of freedom on Pennsylvania soil. But, danger still lurked everywhere. To evade capture and a return to slavery, they needed safe places to hide and to get a meal. Often, African-American churches offered that haven.
The mixed feelings of joy and fear that escaping slaves felt are recreated in Living the Experience, a program presented year-round at Lancaster’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Bethel AME, founded in 1817, was a center of Underground Railroad activity for decades. Audience members hear the story of a deadly confrontation in Lancaster County in 1851. Through role play, they even get to “live” the story a little bit. They learn about William Parker, a free black man who harbored slaves. Audience members are recruited to portray crucial characters and to sing spirituals.
“The story doesn’t work unless the people are involved,” says Phoebe M. Bailey, executive director of Bethel Harambee Historical Services. “Children pick up really quickly. You’d be surprised. They pay attention. It’s captivating to any age group.”
A key part of the experience includes a meal of chicken, rice, black-eyed peas and corn bread Â food traditional to people of Underground Railroad.
“The corn bread is out of sight,” Baily says. “It’s our secret recipe.”
Telling the story of slavery through the eyes of African-Americans is important in creating awareness in people of all cultures, Bailey says.
“It may be a sore spot because it happened here on American soil, but you can hear the facts and also can laugh,” she says. “There is a lot of laughter. Overall, you are run through the gamut of emotions, and that’s usually what our participants tell us.”
William C. Goodridge, born into freedom, was a wealthy African-American in York in the mid-1800s. He was highly regarded in business and commerce. And yet, he risked it all as a conductor for the Underground Railroad.
Soon, Goodridge’s home will be open for tours. The Crispus Attucks Association, a community development organization, is turning the home into the William C. Goodridge Freedom House and Underground Railroad Museum.
Goodridge owned 13 railroad cars and used them to ferry escaping slaves to an orchard near his home. Escapees would move quietly through the trees and, to avoid detection by slave catchers watching the house, take a hidden staircase to the basement.
That staircase is no longer hidden. Visitors will be able to view it as evidence of the desperate measures that slaves had to take. The Goodridge Freedom House will feature a multi-media presentation — an engaging way for children to learn about a brave man from the past.
“He’s a phenomenal human being,” says Carol Kauffman, Crispus Attucks’ community development director. “We have to get more people to know about him.”
Who knew so much history was in our own backyard?
Diane McCormick lives in an old Harrisburg house with her husband Marc and three cats, with frequent visits from her two stepdaughters and 4-year-old granddaughter.
For more information:
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
717-509-1177, ext. 113 • www.livingtheundergroundrailroad.com
Cumberland County Historical Society
www.historicalsociety.com • 717-249-7610
William C. Goodridge Freedom House
123 E. Philadelphia St., York, PA • www.goodridgefreedomhouse.org