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I’ve just finished reading Underground Railway in Pennsylvania by William J Switala (pub. Stackpool Boks, 2001).

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The Underground Railway was a system devised before the American Civil War as a means of enabling enslaved people to escape the Southern slave States and gain freedom in the North and in British Canada. Opponents of slavery, and this included numerous Black people and Black communities in the North,  allowed their homes and places of worship, called stations, to be used as places with food, shelter and money. This Railroad consisted of routes through 14 Northern states.

This book focuses, in some considerable detail, on the Eastern, Central and Western routes travelled through Pennsylvania. It draws on the work of previous studies, fills in gaps of previous publications and includes clear maps of the routes taken. Importantly it challenges, to an extent, the myth that has grown in many minds that the Underground Railway was a white, Quaker operation. While some sections and individuals of the Quaker community did indeed take many risks in harbouring and transporting escaping slaves this was not, by any means, the whole story. For example, many Blacks escaped the South by only connecting with Black individuals, Black communities and Black-lead churches  as they followed the North Star.

As well as providing a very useful picture of the Underground Railway in Pennsylvania Switala’s book also describes each recorded station on the way North through the State. In this respect it is a call to local communities to mark and commemorate those people and buildings in their local county. It also forms a very useful resource for teachers who wish their students to access a fuller picture of the Underground Railway.

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