Underground Railroad history at Concord’s Wayside

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/09/02/underground-railroad-history-at-concords-wayside/

It is fitting that the same house that welcomed Concord minutemen and esteemed literary figures Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott also welcomed weary slaves struggling for freedom along the Underground Railroad. The Wayside in Concord was a safe house for the fugitive travelers, and is located on the same road that saw the British advance and retreat on April 19, 1775.

In the early 19th century, a group of abolitionists, both whites and freed slaves, established the Underground Railroad’s extensive system of stations along a route from the South to the Northern “free states” and Canada.  By the 1850s and 1860s, more than 100,000 escaped slaves traveled along its path.

During that time, many poets and novelists in the American Northeast expressed sympathy for the slaves’ cause through their literary works. In these oppressed black men and women, authors found deserving protagonists who inspired some of their best writing. Writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Harriet Beecher Stowe had tremendous influence on the public debate. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so popular that when Abraham Lincoln met her in 1862 he said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

But the North’s legacy with slavery was mixed, and the Wayside was a silent witness to the region’s conflicted past. One of the early occupants of the house, Samuel Whitney, was a muster master for the Concord minutemen, and fought bravely for the American effort. Yet during his time at the house, Whitney was also a slave owner. One of his slaves, Casey, yearned for freedom just as much as his master. According to Henry David Thoreau, Casey fled from the Wayside to join the Revolutionary War as a soldier, thereby securing his liberty.

In 1783, Massachusetts abolished slavery, but many brutal injustices remained. For example, the notorious 1793 Fugitive Slave Act required that escapees be returned to their owners, and punished residents who harbored them with fines, imprisonment, and lawsuits.

When Louisa May Alcott lived with her family at the Wayside in 1846-47, they knew the risks of helping runaway slaves, but dedicated themselves to the effort anyway. During their stay at the house, they named it the “Hillside,” and it became a secret station along the Underground Railroad. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a founder of an abolitionist society in 1830, and also became a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee in 1850. In his journal, Alcott described his family’s reaction to one of the fugitives they protected:

“He has many of the elements of a hero. His stay with us has given image and a name to the dire entity of slavery, and was an impressive lesson to my children, bringing before them the wrongs of the black man and his tale of woes.”  

Bronson’s wife, Abigail, was no less committed. She joined other notable Concord women, such as Thoreau’s sister Helen and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife, Lidian, in the abolitionist movement. Abigail discussed her daring resolve in her February 28, 1851 letter to her brother:

“I have sent 20 colored women to service in the country – where for the present they will be safe – [I] may yet to meet the penalties of the law – I am ready.”  

Looking back at her family’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement, Alcott wrote in 1881 that she was more proud of their endeavors than of all the books she wrote. The dramatic scenes she witnessed at the Wayside clearly had an impact on her, and inspired the author to serve as a Civil War nurse. Alcott recounted her experiences in Hospital Sketches, which she wrote for the Boston abolitionist paper The Commonwealth.

Despite the slaves’ appalling treatment at the hands of their masters, they found hope in the compassionate assistance of their Underground Railroad hosts. The Wayside’s succession of residents reflects the journey our country made from fighting for freedom for some to fighting for freedom for all. The reverberations of this journey continued as Alcott likened the anti-slavery struggle to the Suffragist movement when she advocated for women’s right to vote later in the 19th century.

Through the National Park Service, the captivating story of the Underground Railroad at the Wayside will soon reach a wider audience. Park Ranger and house historian Michelle Blees has been working with her colleagues on a new website that will explore the connection in detail. The Wayside is temporarily closed for renovations; however, an excellent walking tour called “The Wayside: Home of Authors” is offered through October 31.

The Wayside, administered by the National Park Service, is located at 455 Lexington Road, Concord, MA, one mile east of Concord’s Monument Square. For more information, call 978-369-6975, or go to: http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/ma4.html.

Read more by Mary McCleary by clicking here.