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Marker honors path to freedom

January 16, 2003|by STACEY DANZUSO

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG - Franklin County's role as a crossroads in the Underground Railroad was honored Wednesday with the dedication of a historical marker in downtown Chambersburg.

"Today, we celebrate Pennsylvania as the gateway of freedom. We celebrate ourselves that we haven't given up," on the fight for civil rights, said Karen James, an official with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

More than 300 people gathered inside Central Presbyterian Church and later on Memorial Square for the unveiling of the marker, which recounts Franklin County's participation in the Underground Railroad as a stop in escaped slaves' flights north. The unveiling came on the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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The ceremony also honored efforts for racial equality and the creation of the Waters Institute for African-American History, which is dedicated to research and education in examining the significance of black history in Franklin County.

James said the Underground Railroad made all people equal.

"People were willing to risk their lives for a moment's peace," she said to the packed church.

She said as escaped slaves made their way north to Franklin County, slavery was no longer just a theory to the northern residents but became a reality to which they could attach a face.

The bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad - from the slaves who fled for freedom to the white and black residents along the way who provided safe houses - was the start of a new era for the United States, she said.

"The Underground Railroad was the beginning of rights of all people to participate in America as equals," James said.

The tradition of the Underground Railroad continued in earlier civil rights movements to the present, she said.

"They didn't have to walk away from the plantation. They could have slaughtered people. They chose a different path," she said.

This is the third historical marker in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to commemorate the Underground Railroad, said James Wolfson, a Chambersburg historian who researched and applied to the state for the marker. The others are in Lewisburg and Harrisburg.

"We celebrate heroes today. People taking extraordinary risks to help others, often strangers," Wolfson said.

Chambersburg Mayor Tom Newcomer, Franklin County Commissioner G. Warren Elliott, State Rep. Jeff Coy, D-Franklin, State Sen. Terry Punt, R-Franklin, and Amy Christie, a representative for U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-9th, presented Wolfson with proclamations noting the significance of the installation of the marker and the efforts of the Waters Institute.

In the bitter cold Wednesday afternoon, the group gathered in the northeast corner of Memorial Square for the unveiling of the blue sign with gold lettering that identifies Franklin County as a place of refuge for former slaves escaping their masters. It also mentions Harry Watson, a black barber who assisted the fugitive slaves through Chambersburg, helping to keep them safe and undetected.

Wednesday's dedication was the inaugural event of the Waters Institute.

The Waters Institute is named in honor of the late Donald "Mike" Waters, "our own recent champion of social rights," Wolfson said.

The institute board is working to acquire a site in downtown Chambersburg to house the historical information collected and serve as a museum and research and genealogy center.

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