11 minute read

The Underground Railroad: Black Heroes at The Wayside

“The heroism and desperate struggle that many of our people had to endure should be kept green in the memory of this and coming generations.”

William Still, Pennsylvania, circa 1840s

William Still, born 1821, New Jersey, d. 1902, Father of The Underground Railroad. The quote is from his self-published book, The Underground Railroad. His book is the only first-person account of the Underground Railroad that is written and self-published by a Black American.
Photo: public domain

It remains a moral, political, and economic necessity to understand America’s underground railroad’s origin and legacy. 1 The Wayside in Concord, Massachusetts provides us with an inside view into this history. The Wayside is part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. The NPS program “commemorates and preserves the historical significance of the Underground Railroad which sought to address the injustices of slavery and make freedom a reality in the United States and is a crucial element in the evolution of our national civil rights movement. Inhabitants of The Wayside house have witnessed a dramatic spectrum of American history including the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.” 2

The Wayside is a colonial house that was home to authors including Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne, minuteman Samuel Whitney, farmers, artisans, reformers, and teachers. 3 Nathaniel Hawthorne dubbed the house The Wayside while living there from 1852 - 1869, when he hosted pro-slavery advocates such as Franklin Pierce. Pierce was responsible for ordering federal troops to enforce the “rendition” of fugitive slave Anthony Burns back to Virginia. The Wayside inhabitants were connected to everyday occurrences and sweeping events that shaped America’s heritage, either through their action or inaction.

SLAVERY IN CONCORD AND THE WAYSIDE

As described by the National Park Service, the land associated with The Wayside was originally owned by Concord farmer Nathaniel Ball, 1686. Twenty years later the lot passed to Nathaniel’s son three days before his marriage to Mary Brooks. Through the 1700s the house was inhabited by farmers and artisans. From 1769-1778, and during the American Revolution, Samuel Whitney, a shopkeeper from Boston, owned and lived in what would become known as The Wayside (in the mid-1800s). Whitney held a “strong role in town affairs,” including as a muster master of the Concord minutemen on April 19, 1775.

As early as 1725, Concord’s earliest tax rolls report slavery in Concord, including a 1740 bill of sale for a 2-year-old toddler named Violet (later changed to Nancy). Imagine, if you can, your two-year-old daughter being ripped from your arms, by contract. A letter from William Wilson of Concord, cites the sale of Violet for 30 British pounds to Sarah Melvin, also of Concord. Wilson states I “fully and absolutely sell, grant, convey and pass over Violet to Sarah Melvin for her use and service during Violet’s natural life.” Beginning before the Revolution, slavery impacted every aspect of society, morally, politically, and economically, including in Concord.

From 1725 to 1780 (when slavery began to gradually be abolished in Massachusetts), there were dozens of enslaved people in Concord. By 1808, Concord’s connection to the economic boon of slavery became apparent through the cotton mill opened by Hartwell and Brown in west Concord. The mill depended on cotton from Georgia and South Carolina. This tied Concord directly to the southwestward advance of slavery and the Cotton Kingdom.

Samuel Whitney’s family was one of the twelve known Concord households enslaving Africans, including Reverend Emerson of the Old Manse and Benjamin Barron. 4 Other Concord residents, such as Tilley Merrick, had owned plantations in the south and the Caribbean islands prior to moving to Concord. Others assisted with the industries that thrived and built an economic boom from the sugar and cotton harvested through torture, especially in the face of rebellions and resistance. 5

CASE FEEN 6 : RESISTANCE AND FLIGHT IN DEFENSE OF DIGNITY

The Whitney family enslaved two men at The Wayside. According to one of Henry David Thoreau’s journal entries one of Whitney’s enslaved men was referred to as Casey. Casey preferred the name Case Feen, as this is the name he used to enlist in the army. Case escaped from the Whitney household just before the American Revolution. “Although the exact details of his journey remain a mystery, he returned to Concord as a free man after the war.” According to the Concord Museum, “Case Whitney likely fought in and survived the battle at the North Bridge and later emancipated himself after serving in the continental army.” 7

Case Whitney's looking glass
Case Whitney looking glass, 1750-1800. Concord Museum Collection; Gift of Cummings E. Davis F2521

Case’s looking glass is on exhibit at the Concord Museum. The Concord Museum description of the glass reads “This object holds significance as one of the few documented possessions of an 18th century African-American, Casey. 8 The glass may also have represented to Case a means for trying to gain agency, securing the vital part of his spirit. 9 The paper in Casey’s looking glass quotes “Extremes in nature = good produce/Extremes in man concur to general use.” From Moral Essays by Alexander Pope.

A plaque in Case’s honor stands on a path adjacent to The Wayside. The plaque reads “In 1775 Casey was Samuel Whitney’s slave. When revolution came, he ran away to war, fought for the colonies, and returned to Concord a free man.”

Casey's home
Photo courtesy of Maria Madison

Case may have fled bondage both out of a desperate desire to return to his family, as well as due to the physical and mental torment of slavery. He experienced discrimination’s blunt edge when Sam Whitney’s son pelted him (Case) with snowballs. As noted in Thoreau’s journal, Case retaliated, no doubt fueling his plan to flee. Case was “pursued by Samuel Whitney’s neighbors,” ingeniously eluding capture while hiding in the river and using survival skills unparalleled by Concord White elite. This version of the Underground Railroad leads Case back into Concord as a place where he would be protected. Like others on the Underground Railroad, Case avoided capture and remained in town until his death in 1822, likely assisted and protected by Black and White townspeople. 10

It is likely that Case is the same Casey 11 cared for by Caesar Robbins. According to historians Robert Gross and Anne Forbes, the town, via the overseers of the poor, was paying Caesar Robbins, to care for the ailing Case. 12 Caesar was also a previously enslaved Revolutionary War veteran residing in Concord. It was common practice for Concord to aid its needy residents. State and local practice provided assistance to the needy, Black and White alike. This is an instance of inclusion of Blacks and Whites in a common social arrangement.

By supporting and caring for Case Whitney from 1815-1819, Caesar Robbins and Jack Garrison would have been the lowest bid to the town to receive payment for Case’s board, a remnant of the “venduing” system of caring for paupers.

The Wayside Underground Railroad NPS designation
Photo courtesy of M. Madison

“ELEMENTS OF THE HERO” AT THE WAYSIDE

When the Alcotts lived in The Wayside, 1845-1848, they referred to the property as Hillside. They documented observations of Africans fleeing enslavement. The official NPS Underground Railroad marker to the right of The Wayside states “A young Louisa May Alcott learned firsthand lessons about slavery that would influence her life and writing.”

In the National Park Service reference to “Freedom Seekers at Hillside,” 13 by 1845 the Alcotts were ardent abolitionists. The Alcotts aided at least one African fleeing slavery, heading toward Canada. While living at The Wayside, Mrs. Alcott wrote to her brother in January 1847, “We have had an interesting fugitive here the last two weeks – right from Maryland. He is anxious to get to Canada and we have forwarded him the best way we could. His sufferings have been great, his intrepidity unparalleled. He agrees with us about boycotting slave produce. He says it is the only way the abolition of the slave can ever be effective. He says it will never be done by insurrection.” 14 In reference to the same individual, Bronson Alcott wrote in his journal that the enslaved man was “scarcely thirty years old, athletic, dexterous, sagacious, and self-relying. He has many of the elements of the 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 tales of woe.” 1 5 (emphasis added)

EPILOGUE: FIVE OTHER KNOWN STOPS ON CONCORD’S UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

In addition to The Wayside, other known Underground Railroad stops in Concord include the homes of Mary Rice, Anne and Francis Bigelow, the Thoreau family, 16 Col. William Whiting, and Addison Grant Fay. Though not officially on the NPS Underground Railroad designation (yet), The Robbins House on Monument Street looms large in the narrative of individuals fleeing slavery and yet remaining in Concord, MA. This was particularly true for Jack Garrison (c. 1768), a Black man fleeing slavery in New Jersey arriving in Concord by 1810, in his thirties. Jack lived in the Robbins house for two decades.

Jack Garrison, Concord citizen
public domain

Caesar Robbins’ son-in-law, Jack Garrison, remained in Concord until his death in 1860. Jack lived during a time when he could have been captured and taken back to New Jersey, potentially vulnerable to the enforcement of Massachusetts’ state ban on “African and Negro” foreigners and a 1793 federal fugitive slave law. Jackreceived a walking stick commemorating his old age with an inscription indicating he was 100 years old, although records put his age closer to 91 when he died. Perhaps Jack stayed in Concord due to love, marrying Caesar Robbins’ daughter, Susan, or perhaps due to the sense that he would also not be abducted. Either way, Jack remained in concord and his image became the symbol of antislavery sentiments prior to the Civil War.

Similar to Case Feen, by 1850 Jack is listed as being in the town poor house. Both men benefitted from their relationship to Caesar Robbins (Case benefitted through a loan and Jack a home), yet neither man could recover decades and generations of stolen wages from slavery, ending up in poverty. Their Concord stop on the Underground Railroad left them disenfranchised. Eventually Jack’s son, John, was able to remove his father from the town’s poor house through his own steady income from prestigious positions in town.

At its peak, 1850-1860, the Underground Railroad was associated with more than 100,000 people successfully fleeing enslavement. Many ventured into homes like The Wayside that had previously enslaved people, now finding passageways to freedom through Black and White solidarity, though they did not find sustained equality. None of their descendants remain in Concord today.

RESOURCES

1 Connecting escaping enslavement, losing culture, and confronting racist customs impacted economic outcomes for generations of White and Black Americans. 2 www.nps.gov/ mima/learn/historyculture/thewaysideugrr. htm. 3 nps.gov/mima/learn/historyculture/ thewaysidetimeline.htm. 4 Barron’s house, located on Lexington Road, makes note of his enslaved man, John Jack. John Jack is buried in the Old Hill Burial Ground with the famous epitaph written by Daniel Bliss. 5 Numerous sources throughout oral histories and slave narratives; Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, William Still, Sojourner Truth, etc. 6 Feen was the preferred last name Casey held for himself, in reverence to his wife and homeland. He enlisted in the army for a three-year term under the name Case Feen on March 1, 1781.  7 concordmuseum.org/collection/lookingglass; D. Wood, Curator, Concord Museum confirmed 8.9.21, as this was the practice at the time for enslaved persons to serve in the militia with their masters. Samuel Whitney served on the North Bridge.  8 Casey may also been Casy Minott (1732-1822) per the Concord Museum. Casy Minott was possibly the slave of Timothy Minott (1692-1778) or his son Timothy (1726-18054), although more recent research indicates that a slave “Case” was actually owned by Samuel Whitney. The looking glass descended to George Prescott Minott (1783-1861), friend of Concord Museum’s founder, Cummings E. Davis. 9 See Black Walden, nkisi and Casey Feen, p. 143. Elise Lemire. 10 Individuals who likely assisted Casey in eluding capture included the Cogswells, Minots, and others. 11 Individuals who likely assisted Casey in eluding capture included the Cogswells, Minots and others. 12 Courtesy of Anne Forbes from Concord Overseers of the Poor, payments for the support of Case: 5/1815: to Caesar Robbins $1.25/week 5/1816: to Jack Garrison $1.25/week 5/1817: to Caesar Robbins “state” $1.25/week (this may mean that Case had been declared a state pauper and the town was receiving state money for his support, which they then paid out to the lowest bidder for his care) 5/1818: to Caesar Robbins “state” $1.25/week 5/1819: to Caesar Robbins “state” $ ?? 12/21/1819: $22.48 to be paid to Stows & Merriam. (We have photocopies of this, including the Stows & Merriam bill, which has a note of endorsement on the reverse from Caesar regarding his order to the store for supplies for Case). 13 nps.gov/mima/learn/ historyculture/thewaysideugrr.htm. 14 nps.gov/ mima/learn/historyculture/thewaysideugrr. htm. 15 nps.gov/mima/learn/historyculture/ thewaysideugrr.htm. 16 Such was the case for Shadrach Minkins, for example. February 15, 1851. According to Mass Moments, “On this day in 1851, a group of about 20 black men burst into a courtroom in Boston, grabbed Minkins ‘by the collar and feet’ and ran out the door, rescuing Shadrach Minkins, the first escaped slave seized in New England under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Minkins journeyed on the Underground Railroad travelling through Concord’s Bigelow home, arriving safely in Canada.” massmoments.org/moment-details/ shadrach-minkins-seized.html