FAIRFIELD — The Underground Railroad played a part in helping slaves escape bondage, but not many residents know Fairfield played a significant role in it.
At the Fairfield Public Library on Saturday, Stan Plum, a retired federal archaeologist, talked about key players involved in the Underground Railroad. Plum said Quakers were heavily involved with the Underground Railroad.
The railroad’s existence relied on efforts of people and religious groups. Sometimes a “conductor” would pose as a slave, enter a plantation and then guide runaways north.
Plum shared the story of Robert, the last known person to have traveled the Underground Railroad. Plum said he was sold into slavery and had a wife and child. When he heard he was to be sold south and had to leave his family behind, he decided to escape with the hope of being able to return and bring back his family.
“He undoubtedly came through Salem and then Fairfield, Pleasant Plain,” he said. “Then as he was waiting for a ferry across the river in Washington County, the ferryman informed him that he did not have to run anymore and that he was a free man.” Plum explained this more than likely took place after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Fairfield never really focused too primary on there,” Plum said, although his map showed two lines coming into Fairfield and two lines going out. “It was clear something was going on. The towns of Denmark and Salem were settled specifically to run the Underground Railroad.”
As for work done with National Parks Service to acknowledge Farifield’s role with the Network of Freedom, Plum wanted to “do something living,” such as focusing on the trail that runs through Crow Creek today. “It’s a living example of how freedom seekers moved along to the slaughterhouse and were taken to freedom from there,” he said.
Plum said NPS wasn’t convinced by his proposal, but they encouraged him to change his perspective, asking Plum how many people from the Underground Railroad were buried in the Fairfield cemetery. The answer was 11. That led Plum to begin focusing on their stories.
Leonard Milender appreciated Plum making those connections, surprised by the different key players.
“It’s amazing how he made the connections in relation to those who were part of the Underground Railroad and help them escape,” Milender said, “fraternities, business associations, family associations — that’s a solid connection of individuals.”
Milender’s wife, Marian, grew up on a farm in Pleasant Plain and had heard about her town’s efforts in the Underground Railroad but was surprised by the significance of contribution.
“We never knew how strong help was,” she said. “As kids we knew, but to actually know that my town was a great contributor was amazing. I’m glad we got to see local history spoken about.”
Michael Halley also loved hearing about Fairfield’s history. “The history of Fairfield is fascinating,” he said. “Something that was important. It was life-changing for the individuals that were helped and being on the right side of history. Looking back [we know slavery] is completely wrong.”
It is the enthusiasm of people and the need for education that inspired Plum to continue diving into the Underground Railroad history. He believed it was important to remind people that cruelty from any historical period can carry with people into the future, which is why tolerance is important.
“This was perhaps the most turbulent times in American history,” he said. “People with two divergent ideas came together; the idea that you could keep human beings as property or absolutely, ‘No way you could keep human beings as property.’ It was a split and the Underground Railroad sewed it back together.
“It has so many analogies in today’s world from undocumented immigrants to race relationships in this country,” Plum added, “and the fact that the country has been torn apart with similar fashion as it was in 1850. It’s important to know how people will deal with that.”
Halley agreed. “You get into the modern-day groups that are being mistreated,” he said, “like the LGBT community; which side do you want to be on that one? Do you want to be an inclusive community or prejudiced community? That’s why I like that he can pull from this, we can say, ‘This is the kind of community we want to be.’ We can still be more inclusive.”