Delaware County was an integral part of the Underground Railroad with stations dotted all throughout its landscape and methods in place to move runaways to freedom.
In Charles L. Blockson’s “The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania,” the main route was identified as running along West Chester Pike and one important stop was the Wagon Inn in Newtown Square.
There, Innkeepers David and Taamar Pratt would feign sympathy with slave hunters, to learn what they could about their plans, all the while knowing that many of the fugitives they sought were safe in a room right beneath their feet.
Nearby, Marple tanners James Lewis and James Dannaker hid runaway slaves either in the tannery or in their house. Fugitives would give three knocks on the gate post or wave a white handkerchief as a sign and a secret door was then opened to let them enter.
The author also wrote of an unnamed small black-owned African Methodist Episcopal Church, where runaways received instructions, food, clothing and shelter.
Blockson noted that Delaware County farmers along the railroad would shelter runaway slaves under hides from Philadelphia slaughterhouses.
The author said that the City of Chester was frequently the first stop for the runaways coming from Wilmington, Del. and the Chesapeake Bay.
He explained that conductors (people who led the underground railroad movement) would move slaves among their routine business, as they appeared to be acting out normal everyday affairs.
Take for instance the case of Hannah Marsh of Chester County. She frequently took her garden produce to markets in Philadelphia and Chester. Sometimes, Marsh would move fugitives in her covered market wagon – even during the day time.
On West Chester Pike in Haverford, the Black Bear Inn was operated by Abraham Pennock and his Quaker father-in-law John Sellers. According to the author, prominent Philadelphians would retire to the Inn to escape the malaria outbreaks that occurred in the city during the summer.
Among them were Southern merchants who had left their slaves at the Inn while they went to Philadelphia on business.
Blockson wrote, “Many of their slaves were not present when their owners returned, for they had made their escape to freedom through Underground Railroad connections.”
By the 1840’s, Blockson added that many of the runaway slaves were aided by residents in the predominantly Quaker towns of Media and Swarthmore.
In 1852, the Honeycomb A.M.E. Church was built in Lima and Blockson said some of the early members of the church were slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad. They and other church members continued to assist other runaways as they made their way to Chester or Philadelphia.
Charles L. Blockson’s “The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania” is on display at the home of Delaware County Historical Society, at 408 Avenue of the States, in Chester. Please call 610-359-0832 or by visiting padelcohistory.org. DCHS is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays; and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month. It is closed on Tuesdays.
Appointments and group/school tours are available upon request. Parking is free in the lot behind the building or across the street in the city’s municipal lot. Memberships are encouraged and donations are gratefully accepted.
Delaware County Historical Society has a variety of books in its collection that reference the Underground Railroad in Delaware County.