- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Drive by the late-19th-century house on West Montgomery Street in Rockville and you might think you were seeing just one more example of late Victorian architecture.

You would be right, of course — the plaque on the house says 1893 — but you would also be wrong.

“In 1856 this was the Anderson home, and the site of an escape. We don’t know if that home was enlarged or knocked down, but there was a house here,” says historian Anthony Cohen of Olney, author of “The Underground Railroad in Montgomery County: A History and Driving Guide.”

The Underground Railroad: In 1996 Mr. Cohen gained fame by retracing that route to freedom by foot, boat and rail, traveling the 1,200 miles between Sandy Spring, Md., and Amherstburg, Ontario. Three years later, he walked from Mobile, Ala., to Windsor, Ontario.

Lurking just beyond memory are traces of that loosely organized, well-funded, biracial network of activists that helped bring thousands of people out of slavery between roughly 1810 and 1850.

Now a new brochure, “The Underground Railroad: Maryland’s Network to Freedom,” coordinated by the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, highlights the presence of the Underground Railroad in Maryland through a carefully vetted series of sites, programs and facilities.

Many of the locations are in the Greater Washington area, with the state looking to expand its offerings every two to three years — because there is more to be found about the clandestine network than historians a generation ago had thought.

“We’re finding more and more that there are pieces of the story in archives and narratives,” says Mr. Cohen, who has consulted for several federal agencies and trained Oprah Winfrey for her role in the 1998 film “Beloved.”

He currently runs the Menare Foundation, which he founded in 1996 to help individuals document their own links to the Underground Railroad.

Oh freedom

By the 1830s, antislavery activists were using the terminology of the new technology of the day — railroads — to describe the roads, byways, facilitators and safe houses that helped individuals on the route north.

Those who led people from one “station” to another along established “routes” were “conductors,” with the most famous of them Maryland’s own Harriet Tubman. Tubman escaped slavery in Dorchester County in 1849 by fleeing to Philadelphia and later made 19 trips back to Maryland to guide others out.

All told, she led at least 300 souls, including members of her own family, to the Northern states or to Canada armed with a pistol and a bottle of paregoric (to keep the babies quiet.)

Of course, Maryland was just one part of a route where the only border that really mattered was the Mason-Dixon line. But even within the state, section and locality were certainly issues to be considered.

So was the presence of free blacks, who in 1850 nearly equaled the enslaved population on the Eastern Shore and outnumbered their enslaved counterparts in the District.

“Throughout the South, but especially in the border states, militant free Negroes helped shrink the slave population,” writes historian Ira Berlin, distinguished professor of history at the University of Maryland, in his 1974 book “Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South.”

Fugitives could take the opportunity to blend in with the free black population — or with the enslaved population, for that matter. Many enslaved people aided escapees along the way.

According to Mr. Cohen, the Underground Railroad also depended on the nature of the institution of slavery in any particular area.

“It was a system that was colloquial and discretionary,” he says. “It depended on where you lived, the mind-set of the slaveholder, and the rules of the community.”

So an escapee from, say, Marietta mansion in Prince George’s County, may have had a very different experience — and different expectations — from someone escaping from the District.

Steal away

For those who took the chance to run, retribution could be swift, powerful and final. Advertisements in local newspapers like the Montgomery Sentinel often noted the marks of whippings, scars, burnings and brandings resulting from earlier attempts to escape.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to try to escape was the specter that slaveholders would separate the family and sell the men away — a prospect that became more likely in the first half of the 19th century, particularly in the border states and the Washington area.

“Slavery was horrible for families,” says Stanley Harrold, a professor of history at South Carolina State University and author of “Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, DC, 1828-1865.”

“The nature of slavery in the border states was changing because of land depletion and other factors,” Mr. Harrold says. “Slavery was declining, and slaveholders didn’t need all the labor. So they sold off the men further south.”

With the possibility looming that they would be sold, individuals often separated themselves before outside forces pulled them apart. Sometimes, successful escapees would return to help relatives, and news of a successful escape could also prompt others. But many families never saw the runaways again, and could only hope that they had found freedom.

For mute testimony to the dearth of enslaved men in this area, glance at an 1831 inventory of the goods and property of a member of the slaveholding DeButts family, who lived at Mount Welby in what is now Oxon Cove Park in Prince George’s County: Most of the slaves listed on the inventory are women.

The park earned a mention on the Maryland brochure because it is also the site of the escape of Jacob Shaw, a shoemaker who ran away from the adjoining Berry farm in 1840.

“We are slowly trying to research the history here,” says Marilyn Cohen-Brown, a park ranger at what remains a working farm for most of the year. “The animals have always been a big draw, but the place has a deep history.”

No more auction block

Beneath the surface, Shaw’s escape is part of the story of what it was like to be a slave in Maryland during the first half of the 19th century.

“Slavery in places like Washington and Maryland was actually worse than it was further south because families were being destroyed,” says Mr. Harrold. “Black families lived in constant fear.”

Shaw likely made his way to the District, where a relatively large number of free blacks — here because the urban surroundings offered a range of jobs, and because no statute barred them from staying — funneled escapees from surrounding areas to points north.

In 1860, Georgetown alone boasted more than 2,000 free black people. Escapees often hunkered down in what is now Mount Zion Cemetery off of Q Street Northwest, waiting for nightfall or the next conductor, likely a member of nearby Mount Zion Methodist Church, one of the black churches in the District.

Black churches were “magnets for runaways,” writes Hilary Russell in “Underground Railroad Activists in Washington, D.C.,” an article in Washington History, the magazine of the Historical Society of Washington D.C. So were schools for blacks, where a number of teachers were arrested for aiding fugitives.

The District was also the site of what has been called the “largest mass escape in Underground Railroad history,” when 76 enslaved persons tried to flee up the Potomac on the schooner Pearl in the spring of 1848, only to be captured and re-enslaved after the vessel was overtaken.

One of the minor players in the Pearl affair was the abolitionist William Chaplin, who two years later would be arrested just north of the District on what is now Georgia Avenue in the company of two enslaved men he was assisting to freedom. Bail for Chaplin was set at $25,000, an extraordinarily high figure for the time and a testament to how fearful slaveholders and others were of such activities.

Behold the star

Across the Anacostia River, residents of what is now Deanwood, in Northeast, have their own stories of helping individuals flee.

“My grandfather was a contractor and he used to tell us that he constructed basements for people to hide,” says Elaine Bowman, a lifelong resident of Deanwood.

“People would tell stories that there was a connection to someone in Virginia, and that some people were on their way to Georgetown. And they would hide food for the people in flour sacks.”

Follow the Anacostia River from Deanwood north and you’ll come to the Northwest Branch, which eventually leads to the community of Sandy Spring in Maryland. With a large Quaker population, the community could be a haven for escapees.

But not all Quakers were that interested in helping. In fact, some Quakers were slaveholders themselves.

“The family here did not release their slaves immediately” says Donna Will, executive director of Woodlawn Manor, which was once the plantation of the Palmer family. The Palmers, who were Quakers, owned slaves despite the objections of the Maryland Meeting, which in 1777 forbade slave trafficking.

Mrs. Will makes use of the Rural Legacy Trail that begins just a short walk away from the main house, a three-mile loop that demonstrates and duplicates some of the conditions that would have confronted escapees in the area.

“Most city kids don’t get to be outside in the woods,” says Mrs. Will, who runs extensive programs for students during the school year that include challenge activities and music around the site and on the trail.

“We try to show them how people had to live off the land and rely on signs and the stars in the night sky to move ahead.”

Walk together, children

Sandy Spring also boasted of a sizable free black community that could help runaways to freedom.

“By 1810 all of the Quakers had freed their slaves,” says Susan Soderberg, education and outreach planner with the Montgomery County Department of Planning.

“But Maryland was still a slave state, and this was still a dangerous area.”

And there were still enslaved people in Sandy Spring. As late as 1860, Thomas John Holland was using the established network to make his way to Canada. His brother, William Henson Holland, had escaped three years earlier.

“There were rumors flying that they would be sold,” says Mable Thomas, a descendant of Letha Howard Holland Webster, one of the eight children of Jack and Polly Howard, who were enslaved on the Montgomery County plantations of the Gaither, Howse and Griffith families.

“They were afraid to go together,” Mrs. Thomas says of the Holland brothers, “so William went first.”

Now, the two branches of the Holland family, one in Canada and one in the United States, hold reunions every other year.

“We hadn’t been connected for years, but when we came together the similarities in looks and personalities was just amazing,” Mrs. Thomas says. “Practically everyone could find a twin.”

Something of their story is chronicled at the Sandy Spring Slave Museum, a fairly new building that also features African and African-inspired art along with details of the black American experience. In the museum’s lowest floor is a re-creation of a sliding panel that covered a small space where escapees could be hidden.

Free at last

The routes of the Underground Railroad were rarely direct. One escapee even had to travel south to the District before making her way to freedom, and spent two months hidden in the District before being spirited away to Philadelphia and beyond.

This was Ann Maria Weems, who was owned in Rockville by Charles Price, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Church. In 1855, the 14-year-old Ann Maria was in imminent danger of being sold away from her father, John, a freed man living in Rockville.

“The plan was to sell her into prostitution,” says Maude McGovern of Peerless Rockville, which offers a tour of sites associated with the Underground Railroad within the city of Rockville and is a featured program on the new brochure. “Her family was desperate to get her out.”

After being hidden in the District for two months, during which time she learned to drive a carriage, Ann Maria left the Washington area disguised as a boy and in the company of a mysterious “Professor H.” The two headed for Philadelphia, the young “boy” driving the professor’s carriage.

Rockville enjoys a number of sites and figures associated with the Underground Railroad. Alfred Homer, who escaped from the West Montgomery Street house, may have been an escape organizer. Mr. Cohen notes that several others escaped in the vicinity shortly after Homer did. Could he have been the catalyst?

“There will always be parts that can’t be filled in, but there’s a lot of history to be learned,” Mr. Cohen says. “And history once learned will hopefully exist in service to the present.”

Highlights along Maryland’s Network to Freedom

Ready to get started on your own exploration of the Underground Railroad? Here’s a much condensed guide to locations and programs featured in Maryland’s Network to Freedom. For complete information, see visitmaryland.org or call 877/663-UGRR.


1. Arrest site of William Chaplin

Chaplin, an abolitionist from Albany, N.Y., who was involved in a failed mass escape on the schooner Pearl in 1848main story says it happened in 1858, was captured on Aug. 8, 1850, during a shootout with slave catchers on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. Jesup Blair Park, Georgia Avenue and Blair Road, Silver Spring. 301/563-3405.

2. Belair Mansion

For more than 100 years, the Ogle and Tasker families at Belair Mansion struggled to keep their slaves from running away. A featured exhibit, “African-American Slaves at Belair,” tells the stories of resistance and flight. 12207 Tulip Grove Drive, Bowie. 301/809-3089.

3. Berry Farm

This farm was once a 1,300-acre plantation near the Potomac River. One escape, in 1840, involved Thomas Berry’s enslaved shoemaker, Jacob Shaw. The fields are now part of Oxon Cove Park, a working farm with programs and exhibits on the history of the farm’s slaves and escapes. 6411 Oxon Hill Road, Oxon Hill. 301/839-1176.

4. Camp Stanton

Empty fields that were once a Civil War camp for the recruitment and training of regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. Site can be viewed from the south side of Route 231, Chapel Point Road, Benedict.

5. Catoctin Iron Furnace and manor house ruins

Built by the Johnson family in 1776, the site highlights the role of industrial slavery in U.S. history. The Johnsons were the largest slaveholders in Frederick County. At least one enslaved man attempted escape in 1780. Information at Cunningham Falls State Park Visitor Center, 14039 Catoctin Hollow Road, Thurmont. 301/271-7574.

6. Dorchester County Courthouse

The site of frequent slave auctions and trials of Underground Railroad agents throughout the antebellum period. 206 High St., Cambridge. 410/228-1000.

7. Ferry Hill Plantation

Ferry Hill, on major Underground Railroad routes, was once a thriving plantation using enslaved and free black labor and was the site of several escape attempts. Not open to the public, but group tours may be arranged in advance. Contact the Williamsport Visitor Center, 205 Potomac St., Williamsport. 301/582-0813.

8. Hampton National Historic Site

The heart of a 25,000-acre commercial, industrial and agricultural estate supported by indentured and enslaved labor. 535 Hampton Lane, Towson. 410/823-1309.

9. Jacob Leverton House

A major Underground Railroad stop. After Jacob’s death in 1847, his son Arthur helped runaways. A private home, not open to the public. View the site from the main road. 3531 Seaman Road, Preston.

10. Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum

This state museum of history and archaeology stands on a site of several escapes. 10515 Mackall Road., St. Leonard. 410/586-8500.

11. Marietta House

The plantation home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Gabriel Duvall, from which three slaves fled between 1814 and 1859. 5626 Bell Station Road, Glenn Dale. 301/464-5291.

12. Maryland Statehouse

The site of debates on slavery, freedom and the Underground Railroad. In November 1864, the Maryland legislature abolished slavery. 91 State Circle, Annapolis. 410/974-3400.

13. Mount Clare

The home of the Carroll family, an 800-acre agricultural and industrial complex from which at least four slaves fled in the 1700s. 1500 Washington Boulevard, Baltimore. 410/837-3262.

14. Old Jail, St. Mary’s County

Built in 1858, the place where many unsuccessful attempts at flight ended. 41680 Tudor Place, Leonardtown. 800/327-9023.

15. Point Lookout State Park

Site of a Civil War hospital whose nurses and doctors helped with escapes, of a Civil War “contraband” camp where runaways found shelter, and of a prisoner-of-war camp where U.S. Colored Troops guarded Confederate prisoners. The site of the schooner Pearl’s capture is visible from here. 11175 Point Lookout Road, Scotland. 301/872-5688.

16. Port Tobacco Courthouse

The trial site of the free and enslaved blacks arrested for helping more than 30 armed freedom seekers in 1845. Today it houses a courthouse museum. 7215 Chapel Point Road (off Route 6 West), Port Tobacco. 301/934-4313.

17. President Street Station

Part of an ambitious Underground Railroad network with activists in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia and beyond who secured passage for freedom seekers. The Baltimore Civil War Museum is housed in the depot. 601 President St., Baltimore. 410/385-5188.

18. Rockland

James W.C. Pennington, one of the most prominent black leaders of the 19th century, escaped here in 1827. Built in 1803, the main house at Rockland is a private residence not open to the public. View site from the main road. 9030 Sharpsburg Pike, Fairplay.

19. Roedown Farm

Born enslaved in the early 1820s at Roedown, William Parker made a daring escape at age 17 and later became famous as the leader of the Christiana Resistance of 1851. Private and not open to the public. 3856 Wayson Road, Davidsonville. For more information, contact the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, 410/841-6920.

20. Shawnee Oldfield Village

Between 1711 and 1727, Shawnees living near here offered refuge to freedom seekers who had fled from their masters. Today the village site is a forested area located within the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park near Oldtown.

21. Sotterley Plantation

A tobacco operation and steamboat business that thrived thanks to slave labor; several enslaved people fled from Sotterley. 44300 Sotterley Lane, Route 245 N, Hollywood. 301/373-2280.


22. Finding a Way to Freedom driving tour: Underground Railroad Trail Scenic Byway

A 105-mile self-guided tour that illustrates the life and work of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. Information and brochure available from the Dorchester Visitor Center at Sailwinds Park East, 2 Rose Hill Place, Cambridge. 410/228-1000 or 800/522-8687.

23. Frederick Douglass Freedom & Heritage Trail & Tour

A walk through Baltimore’s Fell’s Point highlighting sites associated with abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, with stops at places linked to Frederick Douglass. BBHTours, P.O. Box 3014, Baltimore. 410/783-5469.

24. In Their Steps: A Guided Walking Tour

Experience the stories of Alfred Homer, Josiah Henson, Ann Maria Weems and other slaves who escaped from Rockville. The tour begins at the 1891 Red Brick Courthouse in Rockville. Peerless Rockville Historic Preservation Ltd., P.O. Box 4262, Rockville. 301/762-0096.

25. Rural Legacy Trail: The Underground Railroad Experience

A self-guided trail illustrating the methods fleeing slaves used to elude capture. Woodlawn Manor Museum, 16501 Norwood Road, Sandy Spring. 301/570-5722.

More about the Underground Railroad

Web site materials, books, pamphlets and an intriguing museum off the Network to Freedom track round out the basics needed for an appreciation of the Underground Railroad. Here’s a selection:


m Sandy Spring Slave Museum and African Art Gallery: 18524 Brooke Road, Sandy Spring. The heritage of American blacks from the trans-Atlantic passage to the civil rights struggle. Open by appointment. 301/384-0727 or sandyspringslavemuseum.org

Web sites

The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom: The National Park Service’s nationwide project to tell the story of the Underground Railroad. See nps.gov and click on “History and Culture,” then on “Explore America’s Past.” Scroll to “Events from the Past.”

The Maryland State Archives: An Underground Railroad site complete with case studies, interactive maps and a search engine. mdslavery.net

William Still’s “The Underground Railroad”: This 1872 compendium of primary sources, narratives and other information is available in digitized form online at www.quinnipiac.edu. Search for “William Still.”

Books and pamphlets

“Stealing Freedom”: By Elisa Carbone (1998), the book chronicles Ann Marie Weems’ journey to freedom. Available used from Amazon and other sellers.

“Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828-1865”: By Stanley Harrold. Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

“The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom: A Comprehensive History”: By Wilbur H. Seibert. Dover 2006 (Reprint of 1898 edition).

“Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia”: By William J. Switala. Stackpole Books, 2004.

“The Underground Railroad in Montgomery County, Maryland: A History and Driving Guide,” by Anthony Cohen. Montgomery County Historical Society, 1994, revised 1997.

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