a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Black history toppled

The LeMoyne House, named a national landmark in Washington, Pa. for being among few surviving buildings that were stops on the Underground Railroad. (Stan Diamond/Observer-Reporter)

Editor's note: This feature story first appeared in February 2002 in the Observer-Reporter, timed for Black History Month

CENTERVILLE, Pa.  – Toppled tombstones rest beside fallen timber or under thick underbrush at an ancient cemetery near Centerville.

Other than a grave robber or vandals, few have climbed the steep hill for decades to the burial ground of some of Washington County's first free African Americans.

"It was very moving," said Kay Clendaniel, a former member of the Washington County Historical Society board, who was drawn to the cemetery in West Pike Run Township. "It makes me almost want to investigate more because you feel so bad about it."

The history of this cemetery and others like it in the area is almost as mysterious as the Underground Railroad used by slaves here in their escape to freedom 150 years ago.

Fewer than 10 known written accounts exist detailing where runaway slaves, en route to Canada, found cover in Washington County, one historian says. And some of what is told about the slave routes could be doubted because the stories amount to nothing more than folklore, said the historian, Terry Necciai of Pittsburgh.

Tales have been told at the landmark LeMoyne House in Washington, Pa., about how escaped slaves were hidden there under a bed or passed through a hole in an attic wall covered by a bookshelf. The real events are unknown, possibly kept secret because it was illegal to participate in the Underground Railroad.

"To the best of our knowledge, we don't know where they were sheltered here," said Leslie A. Yoder, education coordinator at the LeMoyne House, built in 1812 and one of only two buildings in Pennsylvania added to the National Registry of Landmarks in the 1990s as Underground Railroad sites. "It was hidden," added Chuck Edgar, who volunteers in the LeMoyne House library. "If you keep it quiet, you keep it quiet for a long time." The other National landmark tied to the railroad in the state is the stone Johnson House in Germantown, dating to 1765.

Racism also may have played a part in the lack of documentation, Necciai said.

"Unfortunately, the black story has been under-told because the white side was told," Necciai said.

Other Pittsburgh-area historians have gone as far to suggest that the runaway slaves were never welcomed in southwestern Pennsylvania because there were no Quaker communities near that city, Necciai said.

But his research indicates Quakers, some by the name of Talyor, did settle in the Brownsville area, including West Pike Run Township, a portion of which became Centerville Borough.

A house built in the mid-1800s in Monongahela also was a stop on the trail to freedom, according to an account written in 1908 by a man who was a conductor on the railroad stop at that house when he was a teen-ager.

Capt. Joseph T. Armstrong recalled, briefly, how he escorted slaves hidden under hay in a wagon to a skiff on the nearby Monongahela River in a book about the city's homecoming week.

He stated his "strong-minded" aunt, Mrs. J.B. Taylor, lived in the house on Main Street and threatened to kill him as a boy if he repeated her conversations with a black man about hiding fugitive slaves.

Armstrong stated that he wasn't sure his participation was "right or wrong" but that he understood he was in "possession of a great secret." He went on to state that he didn't think the "present generation" of blacks appreciated the "privileges they enjoy" before ending his story, noting that he had already said more than he should have.

Juan and Judy Rodriguez make their home today in the 11-room brick house decorated in Victorian gingerbread at 714 W. Main St.

"I just wish the walls could just talk so I could know what was going on," Juan Rodriguez said.

Necciai believes Mrs. Taylor had Quaker relatives in Centerville.

The nearly forgotten cemetery near that borough contains several members of the Smith family, the women buried in one line and men in another, Clendaniel said.

Two rusted, cast-iron posts provide the only hint that an ornate fence once framed a section of graves. A broken but newer granite tombstone marks the grave of Simeon R. Smith, who was born in 1845 and died in 1914, and was a descendant of Ralph Smith, California Area Historical Society records indicate. Ralph Smith, who died in 1858, became a free man at the age of 28 and took the name of his master and began the generation of Smiths in Centerville.

The historical society in 1991 attempted to identify as many graves as possible at the cemetery, which isn't far from the intersection of Route 40 and Toll 43. While investigating the grounds, society member Edgar Harris said he found a shovel sticking out of a hole being dug in a grave of a member of the Jeffries family.

Not far away, on a hill overlooking Daisytown, weeds obscure another cemetery where freed slaves owned by Dr. Wheeler were buried, Clendaniel said. One broken tombstone marks the Dec. 24, 1831, death of Sarah West. The Little Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, dating to 1844, once marked the site, LeMoyne House archives indicate.

At some point in history, Clendaniel suspects the freed slaves who were sheltered by Quakers in the Centerville area were made to feel unwelcome and moved elsewhere.

"It's a shame," she said.

1 comment:

Ray said...

Hi Scott, My Great-Great Uncle was Abraham Howard Wallace. I believe, was one of those freed slaves Clendaniel references in your post. Abraham, who went by Howard, authored a pamphlet called "A Historical Sketch of the Underground Railroad; From Uniontown to Pittsburgh. I spent a couple of weeks in Washington County in 2003 and put the following together from my research. Although I could not find the documented link, it appears that Howard Wallace and my Great-grandfather, William Henry Wallace were the children of William and Nancy Wallace, of which, William is the son of Herbert Wallace. Here is the link to my presentation. I also donated a copy of the pamphlet to the Washington County library in 2003. http://www.scribd.com/doc/38516038/Genealogy-Black-Wallace-Legacy