Sunday, June 12, 2016

A rare account of the Underground Railroad in Delco

The Holy Child of Jesus Convent in Sharon Hill c.1910

NOTE John Jackson ran the Sharon Female Academy in what is now Sharon Hill from the 1840's thru the 1860's. It was a well known private girls school. This newspaper account is a rare first hand story of the underground railroad in Delco.


            John Jackson was a fine teacher and a man of very strong convictions on the slavery question.  Elizabeth Lloyd, who now lives at Lansdowne, was a pupil of Sharon.  In her article to the intelligencer, Miss Lloyd says:
            “Situated in close proximity to the Great Southern Post Road aka Chester Pike, formerly known as the King’s Highway leading from Philadelphia through Chester and Wilmington down through the Eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, it was perfectly natural that a fugitive in his search for freedom should make Sharon one of his points of rest and recuperation, but no record was ever kept for precautionary reasons as our friends, Thomas Garrett and John Hunn, situated on this line, had fully realized, being virtually bankrupted with fines and prosecutions under the Fugititve Slave Law for noting the part of the Good Samaritan, to these poor creatures.
            “On the Southern road near the State line, there was a public house called the ‘Practical Farmer,’ the occupant of which was always on the lookout for fugitives in order to get the reward offered by the masters for their apprehension, but after they had got past this they were generally pretty safe.  In Chester they had a valiant friend in Samuel Smith, a colored Methodist preacher, who almost invariably piloted them to Sharon, where he announced his arrival in the night by dropping pebbles on the roof just below my chamber window.  The most of those who came were men who were safely stored in the haymow until the next evening, and although our family was large, yet until after they had gone very few knew of their presence.  We also had a very efficient helper in William Brown, a colored quarryman, who had lost one leg by a premature explosion.  He walked on a wooden stump, and withal was more active than many men with sound limbs.  Whenever notified he was always on hand to escort passengers to the next stopping place or put them safely on the way and I have no recollection of any who passed through our station who were ever returned to their masters.
            “The travelers were only moved in the night season except when imperatively necessary, as when belated, and their pursuers were close behind them; in which case it was necessary to resort to stratagem to get them to a place of safety.  I call to mind one morning when three men came in just after daybreak.  Their pursuers were seen mounted on horses riding round the farm on the lookout.  It was necessary to be expeditious, and the large Dearborn wagon used by the school was got out and straw placed in the bottom.  The men were told to lie down and bags of apples were placed on each side of them.  They were covered with bags of hay and two flour barrels were placed in the tail of the wagon as though going to mill.  To carry out the deception further I went in my shirt sleeves, the mill not being over a mile distant.  I had hardly got out of the lane before I perceived I was being pursued.  The man rode alongside, gave a hasty glance in the wagon and passed on.  Fearing I might be pursued I quickly turned off the main road and made for a station about five miles distant.  Finding the occupant was not at home I was at a loss how to proceed as there was no other safe point in that direction.  I therefore kept on, nor stopped till near sunset, when I brought up at Attleborough; at the close of Bucks Quarterly Meeting.  Here I parted with my companions and the next day returned home.
            “But the most interesting case that occurs to me was that of Allen Ricketts and family, consisting of a brother and sister, one half-brother and two sisters and a niece.  They were owned by a man near Baltimore and I presume were house servants.  Their owner died insolvent and the administrator thought it necessary to sell the slaves in order to pay their debts.  Their master’s children, with whom they had always been brought up on terms of intimacy, advised them to leave, and they accordingly did so and in the course of time arrived at the home of Daniel Gibbons, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and were sent by him to his sister, Rachel Hunt, of Darby.  Here they found homes and were appreciated by their employers for their integrity and faithfulness.  Allen was taken into the family of John and Rachel Hunt, where he remained for a number of years as gardener and chore boy.  He was sent to Friends’ school with the rest of the family and acquired the rudiments of education – the three R’s of which we hear so much.
            “In this neighborhood they resided quietly for several years until the younger members had grown to man and womanhood.  A man who had known them in the old Maryland home came to reside in the neighborhood obtained work close by and finally married one of the sisters.  He opened a correspondence with the creditors of their former master, one of whom, having obtained a claim to them, came in search of them without making himself known.  He professed to be a drover going west after a drove of horses, and hired Allen to go with him.  When they reached Harrisburg, unknown to Allen they switched off on the road to Baltimore, and as soon as they crossed the State line he slipped handcuffs on Allen and conveyed him to Baltimore, where he sold him to a slave trader named Slatter.  Here he was confined in a jail just back of the Philadelphia depot, on Pratt Street, preparatory to shipping a vessel load to New Orleans.  The slaves’ dwelling was attached to the house and some of those he thought trustworthy were used as house servants.  One of these, a young woman, Allen persuaded to furnish him with pen and paper, and he wrote me of his situation appealing to me for help in his dilemma.  He got the young woman to mail the letter for him and I received it very fortunately on the afternoon of one of the weekly lectures for the neighborhood which were held at the school and a goodly number assembled.  Allen being known to them all, when the news was read to them it created quite a sensation, and it was decided that I should go to Baltimore that evening and see what could be done.
            “Accordingly the next morning at sunrise found me in that city, and after hunting up our valued friend, John Needles, we went to see Slatter and had quite a talk with him, but previously I went into the jail to make sure that Allen was there.  I found him overjoyed to see me and earnest in the hope that some way might be found to help him out of his troubles.  The jail was nothing but a large room, bare of everything but a few benches, and surrounded by a high brick wall enclosing a yard where the inmates shackled and otherwise might exercise under the supervision of the keeper.
            “Slatter, from his talk, did not incline to terms as he expatiated on the price which as a likely slave, Allen would bring in New Orleans – about $1000.  But finally, perhaps as a matter of bluff, he agreed to take $800 for Allen provided the cash was paid not later than that day week, and I returned home not very hopeful of the prospect in view.  After reporting the situation a subscription was started and through the energy and influence of John Jackson $500 was soon raised and the balance was advanced by a wealthy Friend of Philadelphia, so that at the allotted time I was in Baltimore, and with my friend John Needles as witness called on the trader prepared to consummate the bargain.  He appeared to be very much surprised, and so expressed himself, as he did not expect the money in so short a time and rather hesitated about confirming his agreement on the ground that he could get so much more by shipping Allen South.  He then asked me to allow him to see the letter I had received from Allen, stating that he himself used a certain kind of paper, and if any of his servants had been instrumental in communicating with me he would sell them south at once.  Fortunately I had left the jetter at home and could not gratify him.  When we had completed the papers it was nearly train time, and under the laws of Maryland the railroad companies were not allowed to carry colored people unless two residents of the state gave bonds as to their freedom, under heavy damages.  John Needles and I went over to the depot to get the tickets and the bond prepared.  Slatter saying he would come over to sign the same and bring Allen with him, which he accordingly did, though I have it from Allen that before doing so he supplied the lash to make him disclose his aids in getting the letter to me, but without success.  Allen is still living in Darby and has been placed in many positions of trust, enjoying the respect and esteem of his employers.  The rest of the family have passed away in the home of their adoption, no one having ever disturbed them, but the faithless brother-in-law found it too hot in the neighborhood for him and he was obliged to leave.”


  1. Very interesting article. Anyway to get a copy of the book ?

  2. I was in the underground railroad in Holy Child academy. .it was located in the old church under the front of the church in the basement had a door to a tunnel that went underground I followed it to Chester pike. ..u could hear the car's going past, I could hear the cars going over a manhole cover close by..

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  3. Wow!!!!! I have heard of these tunnels.