Chronicle of a Fugitive Slave-Haven in the Wary North
By Jim Remsen.
Sunbury Press. 246 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by John Timpane
Jim Remsen's Embattled Freedom tells a story everyone around here should know.
Folks are generally aware that Pennsylvania was at the forefront of the antislavery movement. Philadelphia was the buzzing hub of the Underground Railroad, which people sort of know, but it's poorly promoted when it could be a big draw as yet another historic distinction for the commonwealth.
Some may even know about the cross-currents warping Pennsylvania politics at the time. The commonwealth had seen a declining slave population since 1780 thanks to the Gradual Abolition Act. But thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act (enforced by the Compromise of 1850), runaway slaves could be hunted, captured, and returned to their owners. Blacks were powerfully loyal to the Union and (after being barred at first from the ranks) fought in the Civil War.
Sympathy for the rights of African Americans was widespread - but many such sympathizers wouldn't take up arms to defend them. Pro-slavery sentiment also was everywhere, and in the time of Lincoln, the Democratic Party - "the Constitution as it is; the Union as it was" - played the unabashed white-supremacist card. Lincoln won the state twice, but politics tore it nearly down the middle.
In Embattled Freedom, former Inquirer reporter Remsen focuses on the town where he grew up, Waverly, in what is now Lackawanna County. It long had a black section, Colored Hill, which had about 100 free blacks as of about 1840 and gained more thanks to fugitives fleeing servitude in the South. Colored Hill yielded black political leaders, good neighbors, loyal Americans, and 13 Civil War soldiers. Situated along the Underground Railroad, Waverly was a microcosm of what Remsen calls the "inner civil war" in all Pennsylvania between about 1830 and 1930.
With considerable research and history chops, Remsen delves into contemporary records, especially newspapers of the era, to detail the role of Waverly and northeast Pennsylvania (Wilkes-Barre, Montrose, Scranton) in black history, the abolitionist movement, and the era's conflicted, often agonized politics.
We meet some true characters. George Washington Woodward of Luzerne County was chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a proud Democrat and racist who touted the "incalculable blessing" of slavery; he very nearly became governor. The Rev. William Grow was a white Baptist preacher who fought the "slavocracy" from the pulpit. (The crucial role of religion is especially vivid in Remsen's account.)
We also meet Leonard Batchelor, the Presbyterian white merchant who became the "linchpin" in Waverly's Railroad network, helping fugitives settle or pass through. We meet Mary Jane Merritt, who moved from Waverly to Scranton to become a successful black businesswoman. George W. Brown also moved to Scranton, becoming prosperous and helping found a black weekly newspaper, The Defender.
To right a historic wrong, Remsen closes his book with biographies of the 13 all-but-unknown black Civil War soldiers from little Colored Hill in Waverly. As the title reminds us, freedom remained embattled. Well into the 20th century, bitter wrangles raged about states' rights and "The Negro Problem." I wish I could say we're done with them, here and throughout the land. Memorably and, at times, beautifully written, and well-researched, Embattled Freedom shows the long legacy of a yet-unfinished battle.