Friday, February 12, 2010

Honoring Black History by Exploring the North Shore’s Underground Railroad

By Muriel Hoffacker
Gordon College News Service
February 11, 2010
(This article appeared in The Salem News February 13.)

George Harrington, 20-year proprietor of Salem’s Lyceum Restaurant Bar and Grill, has long been convinced the North Shore has a rich heritage for African Americans, specifically as a haven for slaves in search of their freedom.

Harrington owned a house in Marblehead that was one of the oldest wooden structures in New England. “It had a lot of secret passage ways and it was right down near the water too,” Harringon said. “I’m sure it was an Underground Railroad stop.”


He’s likely not wrong. In fact, Emily Murphy, Ph.D. in American Studies and local historian at Salem Maritime National Historical Site in Salem, MA, says that the North Shore is full of rich historical Underground Railroad sites, “bringing a deeper, richer understanding of where we are and where we’re going.”

Dangerous and deadly, the Underground Railroad on Boston’s North Shore served as an organized hiding system from 1816-1856, secretly transferring slaves who were escaping to the north. Thirty-three Underground Railroad spots as well as abolitionists’ stops are scattered across towns such as Saugus, Lynn, Danvers, Andover, Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, Manchester, Ipswich, Newburyport and Amesbury.

Though historians never officially marked Harrington’s former house, it’s not uncommon for many Underground Railroad stops.  Historians have had to depend mostly on information preserved through stories and memories.  (The House of Seven Gablespictured here—was a suspected stop on the Underground Railroad, and is now a National Historic Landmark.)

“There’s a lot that we don’t know about the Underground Railroad because it has been kept secret and there’s no contemporary evidence for it,” said Murphy.  “But people need to understand the dynamics of the North Shore to understand all levels of society.”

With three centuries full of historic artifacts, Murphy says it’s impossible to escape the rich history that the North Shore offers.  But many miss the heritage of the Underground Railroad, which often gets lost in the shadow of the Witch Trials.

“They are amazing stories of heroism and sacrifice,” said Murphy. “It’s giving people possibly another chance to connect to these stories of freedom seekers who risked everything.”

In fact, according to Wilbur H. Siebert’s book The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts (quoted in the National Park Service information), “three Underground trails (from Salem) diverged to the northward, one through Danvers, Andover, Frye Village, South Lawrence, and across the New Hampshire line; another by way of Danvers, Georgetown, and Haverhill into the same state; and the third by way of Beverly, Ipswich, Newburyport, and Amesbury to Seabrook, New Hampshire.”

Murphy said that most people interested in the history of the Underground Railroad are from out of town, “You’re never a tourist in your own town,” she said, adding that many tourists are generally older than the average population and not from the North Shore.

“But the struggle for freedom is a universal concept,” said Murphy.  “It’s always worth studying this history . . . it’s one more way to help continue the dialogue of what this country is based on—freedom.”

Jim McAllister, local historian in Salem, MA, agrees and says it’s important to hear about the North Shore Underground Railroad stops.

“It’s not just history, but human behavior in society,” said McAllister. “It’s critical in that respect to understand that they made an attempt to end that [brutality].”

Murphy will join others at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 14th, as the Salem National Maritime Historic Park hosts, “To Claim Justice: Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond in their own words,” to honor two of the most internationally celebrated African American abolitionists speakers of the 19th century who helped further the efforts of the Underground Railroad on the North Shore.

For more information about the Salem National Maritime Historic Park’s event “To Claim Justice: Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond in their own words” call 978-740-1650.  This event is free and open to the public in Salem’s Visitor Center on 2 New Liberty Street in Salem, MA. For more information on the Essex County Underground Railroad, click here.

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