Abolitionism & the Underground Railroad
By the 1830s Springfield was a key station along the Underground Railroad, a secret network of escape routes and hiding places used by African-Americans fleeing slavery in the South. Conductors along the way, both black and white, assisted runaway slaves with food and shelter in attics, cellars, deep holes in the ground, and hidden rooms. Running at night and hiding by day, escaping slaves — perhaps several thousand out of a population of almost three million — made their way to freedom in the northern U.S. and Canada.
Massachusetts was at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement. In 1788, members of the Massachusetts legislature banned the slave trade within the state's borders. The last slave in Springfield, a fugitive from Schenectady, New York, was freed in February 1808. After her owner came to town to reclaim her, three local selectmen and eighteen others purchased then freed the woman, named Jenny. She settled west of Goosepond, near what later became known as Winchester Square.1
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 allowed slave hunters to capture runaways in the North and made it a crime to harbor or assist escaping slaves. Free blacks and abolitionists repudiated the law, which they argued made the North complicit in the continuation of slavery. At increasing risk to their own lives and freedom, they continued in their efforts to help escaping slaves.
In the late 1850s there were more than two hundred free black residents of Springfield. The first African American church in town, organized in 1844 as the Sanford Street Free Church, hosted visits by abolitionist champions Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. In response to the Fugitive Slave Law, John Brown, Springfield's most ardent abolitionist, formed an organization of black and white members dedicated to preventing the recapture of escaping slaves.
Brown used his own home and two warehouses he owned near the railroad station as safe-houses. Thomas Thomas, a former slave and an associate of Brown, hid runaway slaves in an alcove in the restaurant he owned on the corner of Worthington and Main.
The Chapin family, operators of the Massasoit Hotel on the corner of Main and Rail Road Streets (today known as Gridiron Street), fed and hid slaves in a crawl space beneath the hotel's main stairway. Reverend Samuel Osgood hid groups of escaping slaves in his home, in a backroom known as "the prophet's chamber." Rufus Elmer's shoe shop on the corner of Lyman and Main became an after-hours meeting place where conductors on the Underground Railroad shared information and made plans. Husband and wife Jeremy and Phoebe Warriner converted a granary bin beneath the kitchen of their inn and tavern into a holding space large enough to hide ten escaping slaves.
Through the efforts of the local abolitionist community, those slaves fortunate enough to make it as far as Springfield found rest and nourishment on their way farther north. Canada became their primary destination once the Fugitive Slave Law made even New England unsafe for runaways. The stories and experiences of abolitionists and fugitive slaves following the Connecticut River northward can be found in a fascinating collection of letters preserved at the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. Springfield's role in the Underground Railroad is commemorated by the African American Heritage Trail, which marks important sites associated with the fight against slavery.
1 Jeanette G. Davis-Harris, Springfield's Ethnic Heritage: The Black Community (Springfield: U.S.A. Bicentennial Committee of Springfield, 1976), p. 2.
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