Monday, January 16, 2023

Examining Lancaster County’s role in the Underground Railroad [column]

Some sources maintain that the term "Underground Railroad" was coined here by a person sent to capture a freedom-seeker; that person discovered that his quarry had disappeared as if on an "underground railway." (Note: The railroad was not established in our area until the 1830s and freedom-seekers passed through here at least two generations before that date.)

Wilbur H. Siebert, the first professional historian to research the topic, establishes a link to our area by repeating the narrative developed in 1883 by Robert C. Smedley in his book ("History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania"). Smedley's book, in turn, likely drew on essays penned by local historian Samuel Evans in 1870. All of these early sources identify Columbia as the major entry point to the Northern states for freedom-seekers.

The reason why Columbia was so important is self-evident when one considers that before the Civil War, Columbia had the largest Black urban population in Lancaster County.

Seeking anonymity, freedom-seekers would naturally congregate in areas where there were others who resembled them. Also, a large number of Black Columbia residents were originally from the South: Between 1819 and 1822, Columbia's Black population of fewer than 30 inhabitants was reinforced by 156 emancipated individuals from Virginia plantations.

These new arrivals not only created a community for themselves by starting businesses and erecting churches, they also provided assistance to other members of their race seeking freedom.


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