MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now to another piece of underground history, the Underground Railroad. The unofficial network of secret routes and safe houses that helped black slaves in the 19th century make their way to free states and Canada. One of the main stops on the railroad was Baltimore. Maryland was actually a slave state, but Baltimore was filled with abolitionists and a strong free black community, many members of which lived in West Baltimore.
MR. ROB SACHS
At the center of life for many free blacks was the Orchard Street Church founded in 1837 by Truman Pratt and Basil Hall. Fugitive slaves could come to the church and its adjacent school for food, clothing and shelter as they headed north. This week, I got a tour of the facility from Thomas Saunders, president of Renaissance Production and Tours. They specialize in African-American history. Saunders says the railroad was a loose network so few stops remain intact.
MR. ROB SACHS
But through the work of preservationists and the buildings' current owners, the Greater Baltimore Urban League, the Orchard Street Church still stands today. Okay. What are we looking at here?
MR. THOMAS SAUNDERS
Now, the first entrances we see here, this is the entrance for the chimney sweeps. And generally, chimney sweeps were little boys that would be able to fit through here and it would be their job to scale the chimney with their bucket and brushes and they cleaned the soot out of the chimney. Now, this is the furnace for the church. In 1837, our furnace was simply a big fireplace. So this is where the wood and the coal would be placed to keep the church warm.
MR. THOMAS SAUNDERS
And with a fireplace that big, you could imagine the heat that would be down here. Now, this hole over here is a part of the heating duct system. But if you climb through here, see how it turns the corner?
Now, that's connecting to an old dirt tunnel and so that would get you away from the church. And through all history, it was said that this tunnel once went a 150 feet away from the church. So that would put you on the other side of Martin Luther King Boulevard. Of course, back then, there was no Martin Luther King Boulevard. They had absolutely no road constructed like what you see on the other side of the building today. But this is the escape passage and legend has it, that no fugitive slave was ever caught here.
Now, had they caught a fugitive slave here, Truman Pratt was in good standing with the white community, but by law, he could've been sold back into slavery. And Baltimore had a notorious slave trader by the name of Hope Slater. Hope Slater created the first form of mass transit in America, which was the omnibus, which is a steel cage on wheels and so people used to line the streets along Pratt street where (word?) Harbor is now located and see their loved ones being carted off in the steel cages.
They would be placed on boats and later to the slave ships and the biggest fear for slaves in the Baltimore area was being sold to Hope Slater's Georgia operation because most of the people here, since it was an urban setting, were house slaves. And they were fearful to go south to the Georgia plantations where they would work as field slaves.
So we're looking here, I'm standing -- I'm looking at this tunnel and I'm in this church, in this space. And it's pretty remarkable to think, you know, 150 years ago, this was what saved many people's lives, this tunnel right here where people would literally be crawling through on their hands and knees to escape possible capture. What does it feel like to you when you look at this and when you think about what people were doing in this space?
I mean, well, I understand how desperate people were and how people would yearn for freedom. You know, in some of the old write-in's, you know, one of those sayings was that, you know, the slaves could stay and hurt, but itching was what would drive them crazy. So that meant, like, the yearning to be free, the itching to be free and so you did anything because if they caught you, the punishment would be severe. So going through a dirt tunnel, you see that this is a part of the heating duct system, but connected to the dirt tunnel so there would've been rats and everything there.
And people were willing to go through that, you know, just to be free.
That was Thomas Saunders speaking to me in the old furnace room of Baltimore's Orchard Street Church. To see photos of the escape route and to learn more about the history of the Underground Railroad in Baltimore, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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