How we’ve come to know the story
The Underground Railway was a vast and highly illegal conspiracy. Countless thousands of people, Black and white Americans, were involved. By law in those days, any escaped person that was returned to his or her enslaver could be beaten, mutilated or killed at the enslaver’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 written documents remain of this rich and heroic history simply because of the danger of discovery.
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.
The African American community of Cumberland has always told this story, passing it along in family and community lore. Much of the physical site remains under the church and in the basements of the Allegany Academy (now the Washington Street Library) and the old rectory (31 Prospect Square, no longer in existence), and there are pictures that show the old earthworks through which the escapees 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 a 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 the church sexton!
Since this evidence came to light, members of the African American community have come forward with the oral tradition. Written records on Samuel Denson in the Cumberland area begin after the Civil War, including his resignation as sexton in 1890. More information about him can be found in “The Mother Church of Western Maryland” section.