Underground Railroad artifacts find new home in Burlington County

Louise Calloway, founder and director of the Underground Railroad Education Center, shows off artifacts she's stored in her home since December.
Louise Calloway, founder and director of the Underground Railroad Education Center, shows off artifacts she's stored in her home since December. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 22, 2013

When the Underground Railroad Education Center was forced to close in Burlington City in December, founder and director Louise Calloway wasn't sure about its future.

For seven years, she ran the center in a 19th century building adjacent to a pharmacy believed to have been an Underground Railroad stop.

But Calloway could no longer afford the rent and had to move the artifacts, paintings, statuary, and books into storage at her Willingboro home.

Then, last month, she got a call from Burlington County Administrator Paul Drayton Jr., who learned of the center's closing and wanted to find it a new home.

"I'd like to help you," Calloway remembered him saying. "I said, 'You're kidding me.' "

Burlington County Freeholder Director Joe Donnelly said he "knew right away that the county was going to do everything we could to help out."

He asked Burlington County College if it had space for the center at its newly expanded satellite campus at the Willingboro Town Center.

BCC said it did and is waiting to learn how much will be needed.

"I'm excited about the move," said Calloway, 83, a retired social worker. "I want visitors to have an interactive experience where they can come in, see their history exhibited, and talk about it.

"This is history for all Americans, not just for any one group," she said.

The area's participation in the Underground Railroad must be preserved, Donnelly said.

"This is a significant piece of Burlington County - and quite frankly - national history that needs to be safeguarded for future generations to explore and learn," he said.

During the next few weeks, BCC officials and Calloway will develop relocation plans.

The center's old site on East Union Street was next to what is now Wheatley's Burlington Pharmacy, in an 18th century building where the abolitionist druggist William Allinson opened his business in 1831. It has been a pharmacy ever since. The center's new home will likely afford more space for the collection and other activities, Calloway said.

The nonprofit center had many functions - as an education center for area students, museum, library, coffeehouse, and exhibition space for artists and performers.

"I loved where I was, but it was small," said Calloway, who has been inventorying the collection. "With the new location, we will have a lot more people coming in - people who want to learn about history."

That's especially true because of the location on BCC's campus.

"In addition to providing a location for the center, this partnership also provides an exceptional learning opportunity for our Burlington County College students to experience more about the Underground Railroad and the role Burlington County played in this important piece of American history," Donnelly said.

Calloway has a panel display focusing on James Still, the legendary "Black Doctor of the Pines," the self-educated son of slaves and one of South Jersey's wealthiest landowners.

Other exhibits focus on Harriet Tubman, former slave, abolitionist, and humanitarian, and William Still, chairman of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, who later campaigned to end racial discrimination on Philadelphia streetcars and wrote the book The Underground Railroad.

Also in the collection are sheets of music from the 19th century and the autographs of Martin Luther King and Tom Mboya, a Kenyan freedom fighter who helped form the Kenya African National Union and was assassinated in 1969 in Nairobi. Calloway met both of them and collected their signatures.

Several rooms of Calloway's home are filled with boxes of framed images of African American heroes such as Ellen and William Craft who escaped slavery in Georgia and arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas 1848. Ellen, who was light-skinned, had played the role of a white male planter accompanied by a black servant.

As Calloway walked through artwork scattered across her house, she told stories of others, including Henry "Box" Brown, a Virginia slave who escaped in 1849 by mailing himself in a wooden crate to Philadelphia abolitionists.

Moving the center's collection "is a worthwhile endeavor," said historian Paul W. Schopp of Riverton. "By relocating it to the county college, I would hope it would receive proper attention and programming, and really become a focal point of the Underground Railroad in Burlington County."

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


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