A Bid To Make Known Hidden Side Of History Two Legislators Propose Publishing A Guide On The State's Stops Along The Underground Railroad.

Posted: December 07, 1997

Visitors to the Cherry Hill farm of Thomas and Josiah Evans in the mid-19th century arrived from Woodbury in the night, hid in the attic, gulped down a quick meal, and anxiously awaited their chance to sneak off to Mount Holly by covered wagon.

These visitors were fugitive slaves who traveled along the Underground Railroad, the network of sympathetic homeowners who harbored runaways from the South on their journey to Canada or friendly Northern states.

New Jersey, and especially South Jersey, was a crucial passage. Known stops included the Peter Mott House in Lawnside and Wheatley's Burlington Pharmacy in Burlington City.

But precisely how many stops there were in the state is unknown. With slave hunters on the prowl and unsympathetic neighbors willing to offer information, locations had to be kept secret. Descendants of railroad ``conductors'' could go public after slaves were emancipated, but at the height of slavery and following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, safehouses couldn't advertise their existence.

Two Republican state legislators want to change that.

Assemblywoman Diane Allen, who will become a senator from the Seventh District in Burlington and Camden Counties in January, and Assemblyman Thomas Smith, who represents the 11th District in Monmouth County, are sponsoring a bill that would give the New Jersey Historical Commission $54,000 to publish a guide listing the state's stops on the Underground Railroad. The guide would include a description and mapping of each stop as well as a historical narrative about the Underground Railroad in New Jersey.

The bill is awaiting a vote by the Assembly. There is no Senate version yet.

One supporter is Clarence Still, Lawnside's historian.

``It's a part of history that has been left out,'' Still said. ``Black history wasn't something that people cared about.''

Still said that the Peter Mott House was being restored by the Lawnside Historical Society, which plans to make it a museum and library.

Mott, as it happened, was one of a group of former slaves along the Underground Railroad. He and others were joined by Quakers, the first religious group to declare its opposition to slavery.

And that, Still said, is the best way to view the Underground Railroad: as part of both white and black history. ``It all happened at the same time,'' he said. ``It's all American history.''

Another supporter of the guide is Giles R. Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission.

Wright said he didn't know precisely how many stops on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey there were - which is part of the problem. Data are scant.

``That's hard to calculate,'' Wright said. ``I've never actually stopped to count them.''

What is known, Wright said, is that South Jersey was an ideal passage point along the Atlantic coastline and was most likely sprinkled with safehouses, which were typically homes, farms, businesses and churches. He called it the ``most-favored route.'' Fugitive slaves from Southern states that were farther west went north through Underground Railroad routes in Ohio and Indiana.

``Most wanted to go farther north,'' Wright said. ``Canada was a destination. The best way of doing that was through New Jersey.''

Slave catchers knew this, and many would congregate in New Brunswick, where they would wait for fugitive slaves to cross the Raritan River.

In 1860, armed freed slaves and their supporters drove a band of slave catchers out of Timbuctoo, a community in what is now Westampton, Wright said.

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