Friday, September 11, 2020

A matter of historical record: WIndham's underground railroad

 By Walter Lunt

(Part two of a two-part series)

All too frequently, stories about the underground railroad (the metaphoric name for the secretive system of channeling escaping slaves from the South) turn out to be mere speculation, or worse, pure fiction. Such historical falsehoods typically originate in towns or neighborhoods with numerous old houses that have hideaway closets, root cellars, tiny spaces between built-out walls or basement crevices.

One example is a two-story colonial house on River Road in Windham that was for decades rumored to have a dark refuge located behind a fireplace with entrance gained via a column of loose bricks. The story was told and retold so many times that it became established fact. Asked about the veracity of the long-held belief in 2019, the owner, pointing to the fireplace replied, “Hell no! See if you can find a way to get in behind there.”

Rumors and reports of underground tunnels crossing two different roads in Windham purportedly helped runaways avoid capture when their masters or the authorities visited the homes of suspected “railroad station masters.” No official documentation has been found to verify those narratives.

The Elijah Pope House was a Windham stop on
the underground railroad. COURTESY OF

Maine was the final stretch for runaways escaping to Canada. Many travelled by sea, others overland through the state. Those providing assistance to the fugitives faced heavy fines and/or jail time if caught. Windham has been documented as a stop on the underground railroad during the early to mid-19th century.

The writer recalls a visit to the 200-year old Popeville home of Sylvia and Gilbert Small in the late 1950s. The two-story brick house was built in the 1760s by Elijah Pope, a Quaker. Mrs. Small had requested assistance in moving a chest of drawers on the second-floor landing. When finished, she asked her young helper if he had ever seen “the secret room.” Sensing his uncertainty, she led him back to the landing, and squeezing two spindly fingers between cracks in the paneling, pulled open a small door that blended perfectly with the wall, revealing a tiny closet – dark and musky. “That’s where they hid the slaves,” she announced. At the tender age of 11, it was the writer’s introduction to anti-slavery and the underground railroad.

Later, Mrs. Small shared a withered newspaper article about the local Quaker involvement in hiding and assisting runaway slaves.

According to the article, written in 1928, eighty-four year old Quaker Phebe Pope, granddaughter of Elijah, was interviewed by a feature reporter from the Portland Evening Express. In the lengthy article, Aunt Phebe, as she was known, recalled the days and the ways of the Quaker life at Windham Center. Asked about the Pope family’s involvement with the underground railroad, Aunt Phebe was at first hesitant to answer. Astoundingly, even after nearly three quarters of a century, the aged Quaker seemed reluctant to reveal details of their anti-slavery activity. Ultimately, she admitted her grandfather’s house was a station on the underground railway – the same house occupied in the 1950s by the Small’s, and today by the Livengood family.

Phebe recounted the story of the last “passenger” through the Pope house, probably destined for Canada. It was a 15 or 16 year- old boy, frightened half to death. It seems he knew his master was closing in on him, having reached Portland. The Pope’s offered him food and rest, but the lad insisted on sleeping with his ear to the floor, lest he hear the oncoming horses’ hoofs of the slave catchers coming to get him. Young Phebe wanted the restless runaway to go hide under the (Pleasant River) bridge. But he remained in the house until Dr. Joseph Addison Parsons arrived to whisk him away in a closed carriage under cover of darkness.

Aunt Phebe said she never knew who brought the boy to the Pope house or what happened to him after leaving. Her closing thought with the reporter was, “Just think of those wicked laws we used to have,” clenching her fist as she spoke.

And so, that day in 1957 or 58 began helping out a neighbor move a chest of drawers, and ended with a prideful sense of my community’s heritage; in addition, the beginning of a life-long interest and fascination with the history of the town in which I was growing up. <

Next time, the not-so-innocent side of the Black experience in Windham. Interviews with researchers and authors.

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