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Past as a Prelude

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June 10, 2019 | By Tom Milhollan

Cropped 2019 02 20 Event Photo 2

The issues were polarizing.

Refugees. Family separations. Sanctuary cities. Human trafficking. Rights of citizenship. Conflicts between federal and state law. Enforcement by U.S. Marshals. Court challenges.

At first glance, one might think these difficult and controversial topics have come to national prominence only recently in the context of debates on immigration. However, debates on these same topics can be seen in newspaper accounts of nearly 170 years ago regarding the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad, and the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  

Administered by the Washington County Historical Society, the LeMoyne House is one of the few National Landmarks associated with the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad. Tourists, historians and advocates for social justice often feel a special connection to the LeMoyne House, and the events that transpired in and around it so many years ago. Accordingly, the Historical Society strives to not only research and document the history of the Underground Railroad, but also to compare and contrast it with modern events.

To this end, the Historical Society recently completed the first of what will be a series of initiatives to shed new light on the Underground Railroad and the leading role of African Americans in the movement. An event featuring W&J history professor Dr. Thomas Mainwaring and his acclaimed book, Abandoned Tracks, drew a diverse audience that included descendants of refugees from slavery and Underground Railroad operatives. This event helped all attendees better appreciate the rich legacy of strength and resiliency of the African American community in the mid-1800s, as well as to better understand the starting point for the civil rights movements that followed.

The Historical Society is humbled by the responsibility of documenting the compelling stories of these largely unheralded history makers for study by future generations – in many ways, their cause is still very relevant and continues to inspire us today.