Hidden History: Journey to freedom through Central PA

(WBRE) – It’s no secret the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania played a major part in the Underground Railroad. Descendants and historians are making sure the story of their ancestors will continue to be told for many generations.

Williamsport, Pennsylvania is affectionately called “Billtown”. It’s the birthplace of little league baseball.

Williamsport is also a town that holds the key to a very important part of black history: The Underground Railroad.

“Lycoming County is one of the most historical sites in Pennsylvania and what’s beautiful about Pennsylvania is the Commonwealth is very old. We have a huge history that a lot of states cannot boast about,” said Lisa Summers, Former President of the Jersey Shore Historical Society.

Summers, who now lives in Florida, spent a portion of her life in Lycoming County working at the Thomas Lightfoot Inn, in Williamsport; a place where slaves would go to hide on their journey to freedom.

“The home had a doorway that was near the fireplace in the main dining room and if you did not know where this door was, you could not find them. That’s how well hidden it was,” Summers explained.

That door led to a compartment behind the fireplace and into the kitchen, where slaves could hide from those seeking runaways.

“This is a display we have about the Underground Railroad showing some of the local landmarks and people that were involved with the efforts here to help people escaping slavery,” said Scott Sager, Curator of the Collections at the Taber Museum.

Those who helped the slaves were known as “conductors.” They told the slaves where to hide and where their next stop, or city, was on the Underground Railroad.

It was an extremely dangerous mission done undercover and in secrecy; a passion for freedom which required the bravest, most dedicated individuals.

Daniel Hughes was one of the most important conductors on the Underground Railroad. He was a local bargeman who took slaves on his lumber barge and kept them in caves near his house, right along Freedom Road.

“To read about it isn’t the same as actually experiencing it,” stresses Aja Diggs. Her grandmother, Dr. Mimi Sweeting Diggs, is the granddaughter of Daniel Hughes.

“My grandmother, she devoted her entire life to making sure that the community, the schools, she was big on doing presentations in all the schools elementary to college level to make sure they were aware of the heritage and how the underground railroad went through Williamsport,” said Diggs.

They used whatever was available to make the operation go as smoothly as possible; something as simple as a bench.

“Legend has it in one of the houses in Pennsdale that opens up and was used for storing quilts and blankets but also used to hide escaping slaves” noted Sager.

It was a very dangerous job.

“My Uncle Thomas Leonard, because he helped slaves, he had to leave the country for a number of years because it was a bounty on his head and if he came back he would’ve been in jail,” said Nancy Westbrooks.

The descendants of these conductors and collaborators are working to make sure their stories live on forever.

“She wanted to make sure everyone was aware of how big of an impact he had and she made sure everybody knew and it was her life’s passion,” noted Diggs, about her grandmother.

The challenge from one generation to the next is to keep the history of the Underground Railroad in central Pennsylvania alive.

“We’ve worked hard to get to where we are now, we’ve struggled and that’s what has made us who we are today. The struggles, because from them we have the strength to continue on,” added Westbrooks.