A History of Darkness & Light: Tales and Exploration of Maryland’s Underground Railroad
Feb. 07, 2023
“Freedom is the open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity.” —Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States
Changing the world for the better begins with each small act of courage. Samuel Green had that courage. He was born into slavery in 1802 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Green learned to read and write and trained as a blacksmith. In his early thirties, he bought his freedom and freedom for his wife, Kitty, from Dr. James Muse, acknowledged in Maryland as owner of human beings. Muse refused to permit Green to purchase the freedom of their two children. Both son and daughter remained enslaved, ensuring that Samuel and Kitty would continue to work for Dr. Muse’s profit.
Samuel Green turned his grief and frustration to action. He became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, building a congregation of blacks both free and enslaved. He and Kitty also began assisting those seeking freedom, including Harriet Tubman. Under Green’s guidance, the little clapboard church became an early station along what became known as the Underground Railroad (UGGR). Via this road to freedom, Green’s son escaped to Canada in his early twenties. In retribution, Dr. Muse sold their daughter, Susan, and her two children into the Deep South; they were never heard from again.
Because Muse and others suspected the Green Family was involved with escaping slaves, Rev. Green was threatened and persecuted. On unsubstantiated evidence, Rev. Green was imprisoned for 10 years for having in his possession a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was illegal for any black person, enslaved or free. But Samuel and Kitty Green’s legacy prevailed. Today, Faith Community United Methodist Church in East New Market, Maryland, continues as a viable congregation, as established by Rev. Green and is an honored site in the National Underground Railroad Network.
Samuel Green’s church is one of 90 sites recognized and honored as part of Maryland’s Underground Railroad. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom was established in 1998, as a coalition of national, state, and local organizations working to recover, preserve, and honor the history of slavery and freedom seekers throughout the United States.
There are more than 900 sites nationwide recognized and honored as associated with the UGRR. No other state has as many sites as Maryland.
The Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Guide describes the courageous, secret escape network this way:
The Underground Railroad was a system of support for freedom seekers that got its start in the 1700s, providing resources for the enslaved to reach freedom. It was a system of secrets and whispers. It was hidden spaces carved out by free and enslaved African Americans and by sympathetic whites…There were people who acted as guides (The most famous was Harriet Tubman), people who arranged for safe houses, people who hid freedom seekers on their property, and those who transported them in wagons or ships or paid for their travel…Vigilance committees in northern cities coordinated the elaborate communication and relief networks that served fleeing slaves.
Maryland was the birthplace (and/or the home) of five of the most famous figures in the Underground Railroad, helping freedom seekers or self-liberators reach states that welcomed them. →
Maryland’s population of enslaved people grew rapidly. The first 13 kidnapped and enslaved Africans grew to 25,000 blacks by 1700, and 130,000 by 1750. According to statistics from the Maryland Department of Commerce, Office of Tourism, “There were more successful self-liberators from Maryland than any other state.” In addition to the incredible courage, determination, and skill of these conductors and freedom seekers, Maryland’s terrain offered advantages to the establishment of this road to freedom. As a border state on the Mason-Dixon Line, self-liberators need not travel far to find safe havens in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. The journeys could be made along woodland trails, via creeks, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, Maryland’s labor requirements provided opportunities for enslaved people to learn trades and to read and write. In 1860, prior to the Civil War, 49 percent of blacks in Maryland were free. Ships, wagons, and railroads traversed the state. Free men and women of color often moved independently from town to town, “hired out” by the slave owners.
A copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, circa 1800s. When the book was published in 1852, it was illegal for any black person, enslaved or free, to possess. Courtesy Boston Public Library.
Men and women of conscience, both black and white, struggled to end slavery and lessen the suffering of the men, women, and children held in this barbarous servitude. In a small, tidy house behind a white picket fence, Quakers Hannah and Jacob Leverton sheltered escaping freedom seekers. The Levertons provided food, fresh clothing, and safe rest. One slave owner seeking the “return of his property” sued Leverton. Forced to pay a huge fine, Jacob’s health failed, and he died; his widow, Hannah, and her children maintained their home as part of the UGRR. The Leverton cottage in Preston, Maryland, is privately owned today, but is honored as one of the historic sites of the UGRR.
Recognizing that the cruelty of slavery and the injustice suffered by so many must be acknowledged, there have been funded initiatives to preserve places where slavery has cast its dark shadow and where freedom seekers have journeyed to freedom. In 2019, September was designated as the annual International Underground Railroad Month. In Maryland, private and public agencies, and organizations, including Preservation Maryland, Maryland’s Office of Tourism Development, Maryland’s Commission of African American History and Culture, and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom regularly provide research grants and fellowships.
The 400 Years of African American History Commission oversees many projects. Recently, it collaborated with Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely, Maryland, to develop a program entitled “Rooted Wisdom: Nature’s Role in the Underground Railroad.” The program includes a series of five short videos, narrated by renowned author and historian, Anthony Cohen. In the videos, Cohen shows and explains the experience of being a freedom seeker traveling along the Underground Railroad.
Another of the UGGR projects includes the designation of Annapolis as one of Maryland’s five “Sites of Memory,” a “slave port” or place of arrival for captured, kidnapped, and enslaved Africans who had survived the “Middle Passage,” that unbearably brutal sea voyage by which 12 million men, women, and children were brought to America to become human property.
Located in Preston, Maryland, the Leverton family home was a “main stopping place,” along the Underground Railroad. Quakers Jacob and Hannah Leverton aided escapees moving under cover to freedom in the North. It is a designated site of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. Image courtesy Caroline County Office of Tourism.
From ports like Annapolis and St. Mary’s City, Africans were sold into slavery and transported to plantations, farms, and towns throughout Maryland and beyond. One such destination was a tobacco farm in southern Maryland, the Sotterley Plantation, which is now one of the designated sites on the Underground Railroad. For 300 years, enslaved men, women, and children planted, tended, and harvested tobacco there. In the 1950s, the main house and what remained of the plantation were designated a museum, and visitors toured the home and grounds.
In the 1960s, Agnes Cane Callum discovered that her ancestors had been enslaved on Sotterley Plantation. She brought family and friends to tour the property, and found the decaying slave quarters that still stood on the plantation. Eventually, Agnes Callum met John Briscoe, a descendent of the original family owners of Sotterley. Together, Callum and Briscoe worked together to have Sotterley plantation designated a National Historic Landmark. Since then, the slave cabin has been restored, and a registry established to collect the names of all the men and women, enslaved and free, who spent their lives working the land of Sotterley.
was the key to the success of the Underground Railroad in the 19th century. In addition to the conductors who led individual and groups of “self-liberators” to safe havens in the north, there was also an Under-Underground Railroad composed of people, black and white, who passed information and messages between and among the enslaved people and their friends and relatives in Free states and Canada. Vigilance Committees also arose, locally organized, to support conductors and those escaping enslavement. Both the “Under-Underground” and the Vigilance Committees provided food, shelter, and even transportation as well as conveying important messages.
Renowned historian Anthony Cohen explains the experience of being a freedom seeker traveling along the Underground Railroad in a video series produced for “Rooted Wisdom: Nature’s Role in the Underground Railroad” project. Image screenshot from “The Importance of Language in Understanding the History of the Underground Railroad.”
It is, perhaps, the saga of the Still family that best encapsulates the struggles and triumphs transported by the Underground Railroad in Maryland and beyond. Levin and Charity Still were enslaved in adjacent plantations on the Eastern Shore. Levin purchased his freedom and moved to New Jersey. Charity’s owner would not “sell” or free her, so she attempted escape and was captured along with her two sons. Desperate, she fled again, this time leaving behind her two sons, who were also enslaved. Via the Underground Railroad she reached her husband in New Jersey, however, she was wracked with grief for her two lost sons. The Stills had 14 more children.
Their son James Still became a successful doctor of herbal medicine and a key conductor in the Underground Railroad, where he eventually met his long-lost brother, Peter. Peter Still had been enslaved for 40 years before escaping on the UGGR and eventually reuniting with his family. Charity and Levin Still’s first son, however, died in slavery.
To discover these harrowing stories for yourself and your family, plan your own exploration of Maryland’s historic Underground Railroad and paths to freedom. Begin your journey by learning more at the following online resources:
Explore Maryland’s Underground Railroad
Ultimate Guide to Underground Railroad Sites in Maryland
Rooted Wisdom: Nature’s Role in the Underground Railroad