The Underground Railway was a vast and highly illegal conspiracy. Countless thousands of people, African and white Americans, were involved. By the law in those days, any escaped slave that was returned to his or her master could be beaten, mutilated or killed at the master’s will. Any black person involved with the Underground Railroad would simply be hung. White people involved might get off with a long jail sentence if they had a good lawyer. It is not surprising, then that few actual documents remain of this rich and heroic history simply because almost nothing about it was ever written down.
The search for the story of the Underground Railroad is ongoing and relies in most part upon oral history (stories passed down from one generation to another in families and communities), and bits and pieces of evidence that can be strung together. This is largely the case of the station at Emmanuel Church.
The African American community of Cumberland has always known this story, passing it along in family and community lore. As well, much of the physical site remains under the Church and in the basements of the Academy (now the Public Library) and the old Rectory (now a law office), and there are pictures that show the old earthworks through which the escaping slaves accessed the station. In recent years, the oral history and the buildings and grounds have been strung together and we can now show and tell the story.
Much of the credit for the revival of public interest in the Underground Railroad history at Cumberland rests with the work of Dr. Raymond Dobbard of Howard University. He visited the city in 2000 bringing his scholarly book Hidden in Plain View. This book tells of how innocent looking quilts were actually used as roadmaps to guide the slaves on their route to freedom. One such quilt included a square with a symbol representing the Church and indicating that the bells would be rung as a signal – the very task of Station Master Samuel Denson!
Since this evidence came to light, members of the African American community have come forward with the oral tradition. As well, research has been done on Rev. Buel, the construction of the Church itself and the other buildings involved, and the life of Samuel Denson.
Emmanuel Parish Church is at 16 Washington St. The Library is at 31 Washington St. and the old Rectory is at 29 Prospect Sq. Samuel Denson lies in Rose Hill Cemetery, 535 Fayette St.