Embattled Freedom

White Abolitionists, Black Fighters of Waverly, Pa.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello, Mate.

“Was Waverly unique?” I’ve been asked that more than once.  My history book Embattled Freedom recounts how Waverly, a white farming village near Scranton, took in fugitive slaves and helped set them up with new lives. “Were other towns doing this back then?” folks have wondered. No, not other white communities, at least in the large swath of northern and north-central Pennsylvania that I’ve traced. Some runaways resettled themselves in isolated black enclaves that existed here and there in Pennsylvania, and others were absorbed into pre-existing communities of free blacks within larger towns like Montoursville, Wilkes-Barre, and Montrose. But to have an all-white hamlet plant and nurture a fugitive colony in its midst was remarkable. At the time the world had few models of successful racial coexistence. Thomas Jefferson himself had warned against trying it: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” In the face of such wariness, Waverly’s white progressives freely provided arriving fugitives with jobs, land, education, fellowship and hope. As I say, remarkable.

Good book news. Last Saturday, June 10, was a red-letter day in Waverly. Two descendants of Lot Norris, one of the town’s original fugitive-slave settlers, came in from the Midwest to reconnect with their family roots.  Joyce Gates and Mary Toney had known nothing of their ancestor’s history. I had the pleasure of showing them key sites and arranging for them to spend the night in their ancestor’s house, which still stands. The county proclaimed Lot Norris Day and the Scranton newspaper ran this feature story. On June 4, the Pennsylvania Cable Network aired its hourlong interview with me on the “Pa. Books” program; you can listen to it here. Tomorrow, June 17, I’ll be speaking at noon at the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum, in Scranton City Hall, Washington and Mulberry Streets, Scranton.  On June 24, I’ll be signing books from 10 to 4 at the Wyoming County Historical Society,  11 E. Harrison St., Tunkhannock, Pa. On June 25, I’ll give an afternoon author talk at the Old Presbyterian Church on the green in New Milford, Pa. It’s co-sponsored by the Susquehanna County Historical Society, Old Mill Village and the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies. All are welcome. 

1 Comment

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