20 November 2015
Blog Assignment 1
The Farmhouse: A Safe Haven for Freedom Seekers
For this assignment, I decided I would research and write about my great-aunt’s restaurant, The Farmhouse, and the role it and other safe houses played in freeing slaves from the south via the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a series of routes created mostly by abolitionists and free African Americans to assist slaves in their escape to freedom from the horrors of racial slavery. This figurative railroad consisted of various “stations” along the east coast; these safe havens were often located in homes, churches and other secure institutions. They provided security, shelter, clothing and food for runaway slaves on their journey to free states (“Underground Railroad: A Path to Freedom”).
The Farmhouse, located in Avondale, Pennsylvania, is positioned just above the Mason-Dixon Line making it a tactical resting point for slaves during their journey (Mankus). Although there isn’t much more information about this station, I have been able to visit the area where slaves were hidden in the restaurant. The Farmhouse’s wine cellar was built near the nooks and tunnels that once housed runaway slaves. There is a staircase that leads down to a small space and another from there that leads you to the wine cellar. On the opposite side of the wine cellar entrance, there is a small door that, at first glance, looks to be a small storage area. However, if you continue to walk deeper into the space, a network of hallways and alcoves appears. It amazes me that to this day the structure is still so well intact and preserved.
I chose the restaurant as my cultural artifact for a few reasons. I remember the first time I visited the restaurant and was told that the original space was still whole – I was amazed and intrigued. To this day, each time I visit, I go down to the tunnels to take a look. Although my family did not own the building when it served as a sanctuary to the runaways, my great-uncle’s family lived in the Chester county area during that time and was active in aiding fugitive slaves along with the rest of their Quaker community. Throughout my research of the Quaker community in Chester County and their involvement in this movement, I discovered that my great-uncle was related to Dr. Robert C. Smedley. Dr. Smedley wrote the book History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania that documented his account of the Underground Railroad in southern Pennsylvania (“Truth for Authority, Not Authority for Truth”). These reasons have made me have and gain interest in this artifact not only from a historic perspective in regards to our nation’s history, but also in regards to my family’s history.
Since I was not able to find information specifically about the restaurant’s original owner and creator, I instead decided to examine founders and others who also were integral players in the success of this network in the area. In Chester County there was a Quaker community that was strongly opposed to slavery because of their religion. Quakers, also commonly referred to as Friends, would rather go to prison than compromise their religious beliefs (“Truth for Authority, Not Authority for Truth”). It is argued that Chester County is the most densely populated area of railroad stations in the nation. While there was a willingness to offer assistance to slaves, it was not entirely widespread and so it had to be kept secret. Slave catchers and White people who did not wish to risk their freedom, could not find out about the hiding places. The Longwood Meetinghouse, located roughly ten miles from The Farmhouse, was founded and created by Friends who not only supported the abolition of slavery, but also other movements such as women’s suffrage and other rights. Activists and reformers including Susan B. Anthony and William Lloyd Garrison conregated at the meetinghouse around this time, and later W. E. B. DuBois visited as well (“Truth for Authority, Not Authority for Truth”). After learning of the Longwood Meetinghouse, I realized that I had driven by it many times without recognizing its significance. I’m glad that I will be able to visit this part of Pennsylvania again, and experience it through a new lens and truly appreciate its historical importance.
During this time in slavery’s history in the early 1800s, Pennsylvania as a whole was proving to be a major player in the fight to abolish slavery. The state had already passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, and they also ended up passing a law that prohibited people from kidnapping free slaves to work (Boston et al.). Anti-abolitionist riots were occurring throughout the region; all the while the Quakers and others in Chester County were hiding and protecting runaway slaves. In addition, it is important to note that Canada had just declared that they would not allow for slave catchers to retrieve escaped slaves from within their borders and the Mason-Dixon line was established (Boston et al.). The Mason-Dixon line demarcated the free and slave states on the east coast (“Mason and Dixon Line”). This was a very important time in history for this area because slaves knew that once they crossed the line into southern Pennsylvania they could dissolve some of their worries. Many slaves stopped in Chester County, specifically at the restaurant and surrounding havens with a slight sense of freedom and accomplishment. However, their journey was far from over. They still had to make it farther north, as far north as Canada, and to different towns and cities to avoid capture from slave catchers.
Now jumping to the mid-19th century, we see slave codes being enacted in some states and slave laws being implemented to restrict the freedom of African Americans in the country (Boston et al.). The Civil War’s start and end both changed the significance of Underground Railroad. At the start, slaves now were considered contraband of war; this meant that slaves that escaped to the north were not necessarily considered runaways, but were now considered spoils of war. Conversely, slaves seeking asylum with northerners could be captured by southerners the same as guns and other supplies (Boston et al.). The aftermath of the war was that the Underground Railroad became less and less purposeful over time. Slavery was now abolished and free slaves were now able to travel freely, not to say they could do so without risk. The Underground Railroad’s function comes to an end in the late 1800s as African Americans gain rights and protections from the government (Boston et al.).
The Farmhouse relates directly to much of the material we’ve covered during the course. The Underground Railroad was a form of resistance during the period of slavery. In lecture we talked about how planning escapes was very difficult and if caught doing so, punishments were severe. The punishments included whippings, cutting the slave’s Achilles heel, and in some cases death (Pittman). In class we watched 12 Years A Slave, during which there was a scene that showed Solomon beginning to escape then running across slave catchers in the woods shortly after. The slave catchers were preparing to hang multiple slaves, and after seeing this, Solomon was quickly discouraged. This scene briefly highlights the importance of the Underground Railroad, as the preparation alone to freedom was extremely difficult and dangerous. If slaves were aware of the railroad, this offered them some sense of hope and comfort, as they knew then that they had some support from abolitionists and freed slaves.
In addition, we discussed in lecture that the journey to freedom was very challenging as well, and if caught during an escape, punishments were harsh, Along the journey slaves had to constantly worry about being captured by slave catchers and patrols. These patrols hunted escaped slaves and brought them back to their masters (Pittman). The Underground Railroad provided protection and cover for runaways from the patrol, and helped to reduce the likelihood of escapees from being caught and reaching the freedom they deserved.
*This is a photo of the front entrance of The Farmhouse restaurant in Avondale, PA (Chester County). Underneath this building is a series of small tunnels and secret hiding spaces used to conceal runaway slaves.
Photo credit: http://www.lochnairn.com/home.html
Boston, Nicholas, Jennifer Hallam, and Kimberly Sambol-Tosco. Slavery and the Making of America. Public Broadcasting Service, 2004. Web. 17 November 2015.
Mankus, Jay. “Loch Nairn Golf Club of Avondale: A Civil Taste of History and Golf.” Golf Now. WorldGolf.com, n.d. Web. 17 November 2015.
“Mason and Dixon Line.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 October 2015. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. (2015). Slavery and Slave Resistance [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/986700/files/33370565?module_item_id=6316725.
“Truth for Authority, Not Authority for Truth.” The Kennett Underground Railroad Center. The Kennett Underground Railroad Center, 22 May 2005. Web. 18 November 2015.
“Underground Railroad: A Path to Freedom.” Eastern Illinois University. Eastern Illinois University, n.d. Web. 18 November 2015.