Underground Railroad, Part III: Local African American Condition

BY CYRIL ACKERMAN, CTHS SECRETARY / JULY 2020

In Parts 1 and 2 of the series, we investigated the beginnings and the foundations of slavery and the operation of a covert system of the movement of fugitives through the area known as the Underground Railroad. Let us now look at the truth and consequences of this activity.

As part of the federal “legislative horse trading” that led to the Compromise of 1850, another fugitive slave provision was included in the bill that proved be to a major setback for the abolition of slavery. As a consequence of the second Fugitive Slave Law, northerners and southerners were required to return runaway slave to owners and slaves were not allowed testify in courts of law.

The second fugitive slave law was a great obstacle to those who were already risking their lives and money to help African American men and women to freedom.

S. R. McAllister of Cumberland Township believed the law to be “the most infernal diabolical law ever.” Aiding fugitives “got to be very risky and there was money in it and imprisonment back of it.”

The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857 (delivered by Chief Justice Roger Tawney) ruled that blacks were excluded from citizenship and had no rights. The local free black community with its roots going back to early 1800s was among the largest in south central Pennsylvania.

By 1860, approximately 67 African Americans lived in Cumberland Township. Sydney O’Brien was a slave owned by James Gettys. Gettys would free her and set her up in a house in the southwestern end of Gettysburg.

In the years following, St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church would be established in the community. Members of St. Paul’s AME Church formed the Slaves Refugee Society which was instrumental in helping those seeking freedom from bondage in the farms and orchards of Cumberland Township.

Two of the 67 residents were African American farmers (Abraham O’Brien and Basil Biggs). Abraham O’Brien was 59 at the time of the battle and owned 20 acres of land opposite the old GNMP Mission 66 Visitors Center building, two small houses, a barn, wagon shed and a corn crib.

His brother Moses lived in Gettysburg and his children attended Granite School House.

Biggs was a tenant farmer along Marsh Creek and was born in Maryland. He lost his mother at an early age and was bound out for 13 years of hard work.

He later moved to Baltimore, became a teamster and met his wife Mary, and moved to a farm in Cumberland Township. He was known to help move fugitives (those seeking freedom) northward to Yellow Hill.

James Warfield (also African American) owned 13 acres and was one of the best-known blacksmiths in the county. He abandoned his property and possessions as it was occupied by the invading Army of Northern Virginia and was the headquarters of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet on the second day of the battle and occupied by Confederates on the third day as well.

His property and life were devastated by the events of July 1863. For African Americans throughout south central Pennsylvania, the Confederate invasion was a yet another life shattering experience to overcome.

Despite the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President A. Lincoln in 1863 and the eventual passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U. S. Constitution, slavery issues would be a long time in healing from this point in time in Cumberland Township, Adams County, the state of Pennsylvania and in the United States as a whole.

This series is a snapshot of the Underground Railroad saga that is part of Cumberland Township, Adams County, Pennsylvania history.

Documentation for success and failure of the many fugitives who made the “journey” would truly make for some great nonfiction publications for years to come.

Cyril Ackerman is secretary of the Cumberland Township Historical Society.