“Howling Bedlamites.” On a  recent trip to the Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, I was privileged to page through a volume of fragile Scranton Republican newspapers from 1856. There on Page 2 of the Sept. 25 issue was a particularly striking bit of commentary. Here it is, in full: “The South Side Democrat of Petersburg, Va. , is one of the consistent papers of the South that goes against Freedom in all its shapes, except the freedom to deal in human live stock. There is no other freedom that it will tolerate. It says in a recent number: ‘We have got to hating everything with the prefix free, from free negroes down and up through the whole catalogue–free farms, free labor, free society, free will, free thinking, free children, and free schools–all belonging to the same brood of damnable isms. But the worst of all these abominations is the modern system of free schools. The New-England system of free schools has been the cause and prolific source of the infidelities and  treasons that have turned her cities into Sodoms and Gomorrahs, and her land into the common nestling-place of howling Bedlamites.–We abominate the system, because the SCHOOLS ARE FREE.'”

If I understand it right, the system of county-funded, tuition-free primary schools that had spread across much of the North continued to draw harrumphs from the moneyed elite and other critics South and North. Their complaints seemed to be that education shouldn’t be a giveaway to the undeserving lower classes, that common schools failed to inculcate religion and morality, and that government was trying to usurp the role of parents. As the product of a fine public school education, I must say I’m glad the Bedlamites prevailed.

“I Will Not Hurt You.” At the same time the South Side Democrat was abominating about schools, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was also roiling the public North and South.  Consider the attitudes among whites in Northeastern Pennsylvania, scene of my book Embattled Freedom. Rev. Nathan G. Parke, a Presbyerian pastor in Pittston, Pa., would give a lecture in 1902 in which he recounted that “comparatively few persons” were involved in the area’s Underground Railroad. That faction represented one pole, the opposite pole being the local “pro-slavery men who were entirely willing to do what they could to catch and return to their masters fugitive slaves.”  In between were individuals like the following unnamed man whose vacillations Rev. Parke talked about in his lecture.

According to a Pittston Gazette article about the lecture, the unnamed man once told Rev. Parke that one day prior to the Civil War, he was approached by William Gildersleeve, Wilkes-Barre’s leading abolitionist. Gildersleeve said that “there is a large family of fugitive slaves in town. They reached here last night on their way to Abington. They will pass through Pittston about midnight in my wagon and if you are awake at that time you will hear them. I replied, you know, Gildersleeve, that I do not take much stock in your ‘niggers’ and certainly will not lie awake to hear them passing. It so happened that I could not sleep that night very well and about midnight I heard a wagon coming up the road and it stopped opposite my house near the Ravine shaft.  The thought occurred to me that it was the wagon with the fugitive slaves, and that was the fact. As the wagon continued to stand, I concluded to rise and look out. It was very dark. I took my lantern and went out to the road. As I approached the wagon the inmates headed out and ran. I called to them, ‘I will not hurt you.’ The wagon was broken down and one wheel was in the canal. I could not but feel sorry for them, so I loaned them my wagon, loaded them in and started them off, saying to the driver, ‘stop tomorrow on your way back and get your wagon. I am a blacksmith and I will mend it,’ and so he did.” The encounter, the anonymous man told Rev. Parke, “made me think that possibly I was mistaken and that God did care for the ‘darkies.’”

Other white people of the day had similar recollections–of how it took a direct encounter with imperiled runaways to finally grip their consciences. The unnamed man perhaps even felt that he had been kept  awake that night as a divine agent.

Book News. I’m delighted that the Luzerne Intermediate Unit 18, a consortium of a dozen public school districts in Luzerne and Wyoming Counties, brought me in on March 14 to address a meeting of high school curriculum directors about the Embattled Freedom educational materials. I encouraged any of all of them to make use of resources on the free website embattledfreedom.org.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back on the road over the next month giving the following public talks (weather permitting):

  • Sunday, March 18, 3 p.m. – Wyoming County Cultural Center lecture series, at Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock, Pa.
  • Wednesday, March 21, 1 p.m. – Wallenpaupack Historical Society, meeting at the Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center 126 PPL Drive, Hawley, Pa.
  • Thursday, March 22, noon – The Gathering Place for  Community, Arts & Education, 304 S. State St., Clarks Summit, Pa. (Visions of Teaoga presentation)
  • Tuesday, March 27, 7 p.m. – Ludington Library, 5 S. Bryn Mawr Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa.
  • Wednesday, April 18, 7 p.m. – Roxborough-Manayunk-Wissahickon Historical Society, meeting at the Journey’s Way center, 403 Rector St., Philadelphia.

All are welcome, so come if you can, and tell your friends.