The Civil War is one of America’s defining moments in history.
Throughout this four-year war, the Union, a group of states that promoted the abolition of slavery of Africans, fought the South. The South was known as the Confederate States of America, which vowed to keep slavery legal.
Though slavery had been around for centuries, tensions only began to rise during the 19th century. As more states and territories became ratified westward throughout the country, they determined which ones would be free and which of those would enable slavery.
The South feared that northern states would give complete protection to runaway slaves, so, scanning the Constitution, they found the “Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3),” enacted in 1793. According to this clause, “no person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.”
To simplify, if found, any escaped African slaves would have to return to their masters.
Fast forward to 1850, when the revised Fugitive Slave Act passed.
This new act allowed Southerners to enter the borders of northern states and arrest escaped slaves without trial.
The act put even more pressure on slaves and the free states, as every official and citizen living there had to cooperate with the government if an escaped slave got caught.
Anyone attempting to help out one would have to pay a fine of $500.
The act only drew more criticism from northern states because they believed the South was attempting to legalize kidnapping, and Wisconsin, one of the northern states, tried to nullify it.
That is when the Underground Railroad reached its peak.
While it had already been around since the late 18th century, the new Fugitive Slave Act forced the Underground Railroad to assist every African slave in migrating to a brand new home, including as far north as Canada and as far south as South America.
Among these locations was West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Swarthmore College archived a letter written by a Chester County man named Dr. Edward Fussell. In it, Fussell says the slaves’ “movements were almost always made in the night, and the fugitives were taken from one station to another by wagon and sometimes by foot; they consisted of old men and young, women, children and nursing babes. Sometimes they came singly, sometimes by the dozen.”
The first slave Fussell recalled hiding in his home was a severely injured man who had lacerations from the back to his hips due to being whipped.
Another escaped slave Fussell saw gave him a neck ornament that had choked the slave, making it difficult to lie down except on rugged terrain. Like many other slaves, he also had an ankle ornament; some ranged from “prongs to a ball on chains.”
Here at West Chester University, you can see a statue of Frederick Douglass as you go through the Emile K. Asplundh Concert Hall entrance. Douglass, an escaped slave, gave his final speech at the campus 19 days before his death on Feb. 20, 1895.
The Chester County Planning Commission offers a “Freedom Trail” regarding the Underground Railroad. You can visit the website and download a free driving tour map that spans from Cambridge, Maryland, all the way up to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In addition, you can also download a map of the Kennett Region, travel across eight historical sites and experience history for yourself.
Benjamin Slomowitz is a third-year Media & Culture major. BS968158@wcupa.edu