Underground Railroad may be resurrected
UD grad students hope to make the route taken by runaway slaves a historic highway.

By RACHEL KIPP, The News Journal
Posted Saturday, February 24, 2007

UD student Keonna Greene of Newark takes photos at the New Castle Courthouse museum. Abolitionists Thomas Garrett and John Hunn were tried at the courthouse in 1848 for helping runaway slaves. The News Journal/CARLA VARISCO

NEWARK — After escaping from points south, runaway slaves entered Delaware and faced "the gauntlet," the dangerous journey east from the state line to Camden. From there, the path diverged: head north toward Pennsylvania by land or east to find freedom by water.

After the Civil War, the secret paths were no longer needed. The landscape changed. Open fields gave way to buildings. Creeks were traversed by bridges, and dirt paths became concrete roads. Old homes were torn down or found new life as museums.

Peel back the layers, and the trail thousands of slaves took through Delaware on their journey north in the early 1800s is still there. Researchers are collecting stories, letters, diary entries and maps and using them to create a road they hope will become a state highway honoring those who ran and "rode" the Underground Railroad.

"As you're driving on the route, it doesn't look the same as it did and we're kind of connecting the dots of how to improve it by making a scene that tells the story," said Sarah Beetham, one of a group of University of Delaware graduate students working on the project. "It's not just presenting the sites. We want to make it more emotionally involved by actually telling a story from the point of view of people seeking freedom."

David Ames, a professor and director of UD's Center for Historic Architecture and Design who is overseeing the state highway project, said that in thinking about the Underground Railroad, "people get very literal ... they think tracks and stations."

The path he and his students are creating has neither. Travelers who make the journey from the Choptank River in Maryland to the Pennsylvania border will follow routes 10, 15, 9 and 299, passing more than 20 sites connected to the Underground Railroad. The landmarks include houses, churches, fields and vacant lots.

"We are not pointing out one particular Underground Railroad route, but using contemporary roadways to touch on as many sites as we can to give people a sense of the passage from west to north and from the south to the north," said Debra Martin, preservation planner for the city of Wilmington.

University of Delaware students Andrea Harf (left) and Ann Fangmann keep logs of sections of the Underground Railroad they have researched while standing outside the New Castle Courthouse museum. The News Journal/CARLA VARISCO

The city is administering the National Parks Service grant funding the state scenic highway project for the Underground Railroad Coalition of Delaware, a nonprofit organization that promotes the history of the period.

"It's not a historic route, although some of the road may have been there and some of the routes may have been traveled," Martin said. "But it's the best way we have right now to connect the sites we know about or the sites we think we're going to find more information on."

Official designation as a scenic and historic highway would come after the project is evaluated by the state. Researchers hope to have the nomination completed within the month. The Delaware route is being designed to connect to an Underground Railroad trail that winds through Maryland's Eastern Shore. The route would also connect to the Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway, which runs along Del. 52 from downtown Wilmington to the Pennsylvania state line.

"The program is not a signing program; we don't just sign the roadway and say 'goodbye' and 'good luck,' " said Maria Andaya, who manages the scenic and historic highway program for the state Department of Transportation. "There's a lot of work afterward. After it gets designated, we require development of a corridor management plan. The plan will detail a list of actions and strategies on how the sponsor, in this case the coalition, will enhance and preserve and promote the byway."

Few written records

The researchers scanned letters, diaries, newspaper stories and other documents looking for stories about those who participated in the Underground Railroad network in Delaware. Many of the accounts make only vague references to towns or buildings; other spots appear to be referenced using a code.

"They had to be so secretive, so you can see why people never had a written record," Beetham said. "There is a lot of debate about what happened at which sites and where and which part. So many things included in our route are there because someone told a story."

Delaware was a slave state, but was the farthest north and had a large number of free blacks, which provided freedom seekers with help and natural camouflage, Ames said. The group calls the first part of the proposed state highway route, from the Maryland state line to Camden, "the gauntlet," because they say it was the portion where runaway slaves were most likely to get caught.

Some of the names and stories link several sites. The Hawkins family, a husband, wife, and six children, escaped slaveholders on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1840s to find freedom in the north. During their travels through Delaware, they were aided by John Hunn and Thomas Garrett, two of the state's most prominent Underground Railroad supporters.

One of Hunn's neighbors in Middletown turned the family and Hunn into the magistrate. The Hawkinses were arrested and taken to the New Castle Jail, but eventually freed by a judge. Hunn and Garrett were prosecuted, convicted and fined.

Along the proposed highway route, travelers will pass by Camden Friends Meeting House, where Hunn worshipped and is buried; Great Geneva and Wildcat Manor, two Hunn family homes that were possible stops on the Underground Railroad; and the site of the former Hunn farm, now a vacant lot along Del. 299.

"It's almost like espionage today, with safe houses, contacts, getting messages that you don't know where they came from so you couldn't give away sources," Ames said.

Telling story still possible

University of Delaware professor David Ames and students research the Underground Railroad route. The students are trying to get the route designated as a scenic and historic highway. The News Journal/GARY EMEIGH

The men and women who traveled through Delaware to escape slavery came mostly from other states, including Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia. They benefited from family and community connections, including with free blacks.

"Enslaved people were not completely isolated on the plantation like they were in the Deep South; in the border states, their lives were very, very different," said Kate Larson, an author and historian of the Underground Railroad who is a history professor at Simmons College in Boston.

"There was a lot more movement, there was daily interaction with free black people, so there was a lot more fluidity to everyone's lives. ... It was a very complex society and people moved around and that proved to be very important for people trying to move away."

Houses with secret rooms or tunnels and famous names like Garrett, Hunn or Harriet Tubman are what come most easily to mind when thinking about the Underground Railroad. But Larson said anyone can see part of the story simply by looking out a car window and using some imagination.

"People who ran away, they traversed the landscapes and many of the landscapes are still there and people can see them, particularly in the more undeveloped areas of Delaware," Larson said.

"Those are places where some great stories can be told of people running away and being exposed to the elements and being exposed in open fields, and even forests, and dogs chasing after them. ... Telling the story along this route is still going to be possible and people are still going to appreciate what happened back then. The point is to tell the stories, whether you have to tell them in front of a shopping mall or not, because this is a great story."

Route 'part of a greater network'

In a parking lot of a Dunkin' Donuts on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Ames gets up from the driver's seat of a UD minibus and turns toward the students sitting in the back. They are in Maryland on an early weekend morning to drive that state's Underground Railroad route and see how it connects to the proposed Delaware byway.

"I have an assignment for you all," Ames said. "What this is all about, this scenic highway work, is the traveler's experience. Take in the scene as if you are a traveler new to this area. You're doing research work into the Underground Railroad but you haven't traveled it. I want you to react to it."

The all-day trips aren't new to the researchers, who are all master's or doctoral students at UD in fields such as historic preservation and art history. They've been driving the route in segments for several weeks, taking photos and paying attention to the ease of navigation, the view along the roads and how all of those qualities could come together to create a narrative.

"You can see how the Delaware route is part of a greater network, part of a greater context," graduate student Ann Fangmann said. "You can't think about it as a single entity, just this state. Our part was part of a greater route."

"Being a black person, a lot of my history is left out," graduate student Keonna Greene said. "We can give people some opportunity at least to see that part of history they never knew about. We can help by bringing that part of American history to life."

Contact Rachel Kipp at 324-2386 or rkipp@delawareonline.com.


Here are some places to visit to learn more about slavery and the Underground Railroad in Delaware:


Some people involved with the Underground Railroad in Delaware:

Samuel Burris: Burris was a free black man who is reported to have helped hundreds of enslaved blacks escape. Burris was jailed for his abolition efforts and eventually convicted and sentenced to be auctioned into slavery. Supporters raised $500 for his auction and Wilmington abolitionist Isaac Flint, posing as a slave trader, made the highest bid, allowing Burris to return to his family in Philadelphia.

Thomas Garrett: Garrett was a Wilmington "stationmaster" who helped slaves escape to the north. Garrett was motivated to work against slavery in 1813 when he discovered that a free black woman employed by his family was captured by men intent on selling her into slavery. Garrett, who then lived in Upper Darby, Pa., set off to rescue her and did. He became inspired to stand up against the horrors of slavery. Later, he became a Wilmington businessman and helped an estimated 2,700 escaping slaves win their freedom.

John Hunn: John Hunn was known as one of the "chief engineers" of the Underground Railroad in Delaware. For helping the Hawkins family escape in the 1840s, Hunn and Garrett were convicted and fined in 1848 by the U.S. District Court. Both continued to be active in the Underground Railroad.

Harriet Tubman: One of the most well-known figures in the history of the Underground Railroad, Tubman freed herself from slavery and made multiple trips back to Maryland to help members of her family escape. She traveled from Maryland through Delaware up to the Pennsylvania border. Accounts by historians list stops in Delaware including Canterbury, Camden, Cheswold (then called Moreton), Middletown, Sandtown and Willow Grove.

Source: Intrinsic Qualities along Delaware's Potential Underground Railroad Scenic and Historic Highway, prepared by the University of Delaware's Center for Historic Architecture and Design; News Journal research.

©2004-2009 Wilmington Friends Meeting • Site Design by Aztec | Home