Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
FAIRFIELD — The McElhinny House in Fairfield was packed Monday afternoon with residents eager to learn about locals’ involvement in the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves find freedom.
The date of June 20 was chosen for the program to coincide with the observance of the new federal holiday of Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in America.
The Carnegie Historical Museum put on the program, which included hearing from history buffs and people affiliated with historic preservation organizations talk about abolitionists from Jefferson County and the surrounding area. Carnegie Historical Museum Director Mark Shafer said he invited a cross-section of people to speak about different aspects of the abolitionist movement in Fairfield, Keosauqua, Mt. Pleasant and other towns.
“I’m trying to lay the groundwork for regional cooperation so we can develop our own Freedom Trail and a driving tour of Iowa Wesleyan, where a woman born into slavery was the first Black graduate of the college,” Shafer said. “There’s a rich tapestry of opportunity for developing historic tourism.”
Herb Shafer, Mark’s brother, spoke about the Home Missionary Society and its activities in Bentonsport. In the few decades before the Civil War, the society’s missionaries had three principal objectives, and they were to promote universal education and oppose saloons and slavery. As the missionaries headed west across the country, they wrote letters back to the home office in New York about the progress they were making and about the values of the people they encountered.
Herb said that, in the 1840s, being an abolitionist in Iowa was considered “detestable” and that such people were regarded as “troublemakers” for wanting to upset the social order. He said this was because the state received settlers from the southern United States where slavery was allowed. However, through the work of anti-slavery missionaries and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that required slaves be returned to their owners even if they were in a free state, Iowans turned more sharply against slavery.
Herb spoke about how certain churches in the area were known for their abolitionist teachings, which included helping runaway slaves. Among these churches were the Free Methodists, Quakers and Congregationalists. He spoke about a Congregationalist pastor in Farmington who was threatened by locals, who believed he was responsible for encouraging runaway slaves to pass through.
“They threatened to burn their church house, which had been completed just six months before,” Herb said. “They threatened to burn the mills and businesses of the Congregationalist church members, all in the name of putting down their radical views. It was not a pleasant thing to be an abolitionist in those early days.”
Christie Daugherty, a volunteer with the Pearson House in Keosauqua, dressed in a period outfit while speaking about Keosauqua’s connection to the Underground Railroad. She spoke about how Keosauqua, just 8 miles from the Missouri border, was often involved in disputes between slave bounty hunters and locals who tried to hide them. She told one anecdote about a group of bounty hunters who had come to the area in search of runaway slaves, and assumed they would receive help from the local residents who had roots in the South. Instead, the locals tricked them by giving them false information so they were not able to capture the runaways.
Joy Lapp of the Henry County Historic Preservation Commission spoke about Mt. Pleasant’s role in the abolitionist movement. She spoke about Samuel Howe, whose house was a station along the Underground Railroad. However, not everyone appreciated Howe’s efforts in helping freedom-seekers.
“He was bitterly hated and had to endure the wickedest persecution,” said Lapp, reading from a letter written by Howe’s son after his death. “His property was destroyed, his stock stolen, and emissaries were sent to take his life, and finally he was brutally mobbed by the pro-slavery ruffians in the streets of Mt. Pleasant.”
Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at email@example.com