2018-05-10 / Local & State

Professor Sorts Fact, Fiction In Underground Railroad Tales

By Barbara Miller
(WASHINGTON)
OBSERVER-REPORTER

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) – Scenario No. 1: Nine escaped slaves make their way in 1856 from Clarksburg, then in Virginia, and cross the Mason- Dixon Line. Armed with tools used for cutting corn, clubs and rocks, they beat back their pursuers in Greene County and head to freedom in Canada.

Scenario No. 2: Six runaway slaves arrive at the Washington home of abolitionist Dr. Francis J. LeMoyne. Law enforcement shows up with a search warrant, but is stymied by the lady of the house, who takes to her bed faking illness to shelter the group hiding beneath the bed frame.

One of these Underground Railroad scenarios actually occurred. Can you guess which one?

Sorting fact from fiction is the mission of Washington & Jefferson College history professor Tom Mainwaring, in his book, “Abandoned Tracks,’’ published today by the University of Notre Dame Press.

The Underground Railroad has for decades been an intriguing topic for many people, but pinning down facts and winnowing them from legend more than 150 years after the Civil War is no easy task.

Leave it to a former reporter for the Danville (Va.) Bee to be a sleuth for truth.

Mainwaring, 66, is chairman of the history department at the college, where he teaches students about events that shaped the United States.

He found himself taking a familiar path for many a writer: delving into a research topic, writing an article that led to more questions and more answers, which then expanded into a book.

In 2004, Mainwaring wanted to gather some information on Underground Railroad sites in Washington County for an intersession course he was planning, and he needed some details about a particular group of escapees.

He stopped by the Washington County Historical Society, located in the historic home of Francis J. LeMoyne, a well-known abolitionist and helper of escaped slaves.

“I went to the historical society and asked to see the Washington Observer for 20 Nov. 1884, fully expecting to be handed a newspaper clipping.... Much to my surprise, I was handed a heavy, bound volume containing (newsprint) copies of the Observer for several years. This volume, measuring two feet by three feet, was full of surprises,’’ he wrote.

The Underground Railroad, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Civil War, was apparently a topic that was still controversial. Local historian Boyd Crumrine, author of the 1884 series, wrote that he wasn’t identifying several Caucasian participants lest they or their descendants be castigated.

Unlike the 19th century writers, Mainwaring breaks new ground by documenting the actions of black Underground Railroad facilitators, noting that only a pamphlet by Howard Wallace, published in 1903, “has survived to tell the story of the Underground Railroad in Washington County from a black perspective, and it is not mentioned in any of the local histories.’’

“Typically the old county histories have largely ignored or at least not mentioned very heavily the participation of African- Americans and that’s one of the main threads I have tried to weave here. We’re probably looking at tip of the iceberg,’’ he said in an interview last month.

“In many ways, this dialogue about slavery is something that continues. It’s in many ways a dialogue about race relations.’’

Mainwaring waded deeper and deeper into the subject matter and sourced it immaculately from the history of slavery in Pennsylvania to a conclusion he called “The End of the Line,’’ that deals with issues surrounding race relations in the United States.

To the local Underground Railroad’s credit, Mainwaring notes, “There is no record of any slave captures in Washington County. Uniontown in nearby Fayette County witnessed four fugitive slave apprehensions, and Pittsburgh, two.’’

The route of fleeing slaves was, in many ways, a matter of geography. Greene County, for example, shared western and southern boundaries with Virginia, but escapes were not common.

Meticulously checking statistics, Mainwaring opined, “Even if all of the fugitive slaves who escaped from the border counties of Virginia and Maryland traveled through Washington County, it amounts to a dozen or so fugitives per year.’’

In modern times, it seems that any antebellum house with a closet or secluded space is rumored to have been, 150 years later, a candidate for an Underground Railroad hideout.

“At least in rural Washington County, lofts, barns, and other outbuildings provided the typical shelter for fugitives, not secret rooms or chambers,’’ Mainwaring wrote.

“It’s important to think about the Underground Railroad as a network of people rather than places,’’ he said in the interview.

Mainwaring found about a dozen houses still standing that have a connection to the Underground Railroad.

He compiled, analyzed and evaluated sources for credibility’s sake to an “Abandoned Tracks’’ appendix in which he assigns from zero to five “North Stars’’ in ranking to claims to Underground Railroad association, with zero being spurious to five, impeccably documented.

Now, about the first two paragraphs of this story about the publication of “Abandoned Tracks.’’

Clay Kilgore, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, tells the story of the escapees hiding beneath Mrs. LeMoyne’s bed when discussing the Underground Railroad, but ... .

Kilgore learned about 20 to 25 freed, not escaped, slaves resting at the LeMoyne House, and wondered if this was somehow conflated with local legend about the slaves under the lady’s bed.

“When I go places to talk, that’s what people expect to hear. I have had people mention that to me.’’ Kilgore said.

“The history that was saved was that of wealthier white men. At least that’s something we know. Nobody kept any records, and the slaves in the south weren’t writing letters back and forth.

“His effort is just amazing to me,’’ Kilgore said of “Abandoned Tracks.’’

Federal Department of the Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1997 designated the LeMoyne home and doctor’s office a National Historic Landmark for the owner’s prominence as an abolitionist and, according to a half-dozen sources, his aid of fugitive slaves.

“These sources clearly establish LeMoyne’s involvement in the Underground Railroad... but they do not offer any conclusive proof that fugitive slaves stayed in his home,’’ Mainwaring wrote. “The preponderance of the evidence only allows that it was very likely that LeMoyne harbored fugitive slaves in his residence.’’

Mainwaring has a take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to evaluating his subject matter, even in regard to “the campus tour of Washington & Jefferson College’’ which “touts Davis Hall, about a block away from LeMoyne’s East Maiden Street home as an underground railroad stop. The claim has no firm foundation.’’

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