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Finding an Underground Railroad Junction in Northern Liberties

The Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Philly was just a way bigger operation than we think.

The late Charles L. Blockson basically said that Philly was the center of activity for the East Coast anti-slavery movement; if we continue the railroad lingo, Blockson says Philly was not just a stop, not just a depot, but a Junction.

From 'Philadelphia was a major 'Railroad' stop: A link in a 'mysterious network' that led thousands to their freedom' Kendall Wilson Tribune Staff Writer.  Philadelphia Tribune (1912-); Philadelphia, Penn.. 11 Feb 2003

Paschall's Alley (now called Wallace Street, and at one time called Lynd Street) has been coming up a few times in UGRR accounts, like this one from Blockson's book 'African Americans in Pennsylvania'.

Excerpt from Charles L. Blockson's 'African Americans In Pennsylvania' noting that UGRR leaders lived close to Paschall's Alley (spelled incorrectly).

But the other day, this popped up.

From PENCIL PUSHER POINTS. (1914, May 23). Philadelphia Tribune

There's that thousands word again.

How could this small alley in Northern Liberties manage that kind of volume of people coming through?

Digging in, we found that in the 1838 Census there was a John Lewton on Paschall's Alley. We are assuming that this is Mary's husband and that she also lived on Paschall's Alley.

Courtesy Historical Society of Pennslyvania. See 1838 PAS Census in our Digital Archives, Volume 4, page 54.

I haven't been able to find a lot on Mary but she seems to be an incredible person judging form the fact that she helped thousands whilst also founding Union A.M.E.(🙏🏽💪🏾)

In 1838 there were 158 Black people living on Paschall's Alley in a variety of trades; carters, porters, day washers, laborers.

Courtesy Historical Society of Pennslyvania. See 1838 PAS Census in our Digital Archives, Volume 4, page 54.

In the Register of Trades there are a few Black business owners on the alley, like Elizabeth Brown, a dressmaker. Check out our interactive map here.

Still, that didn't seem like enough people to support thousands of freedom seekers. So we started looking at what was around Paschall's Alley for any possible explanation in the physical infrastructure.

And that's where a compelling possibility emerged that maybe, just maybe, Paschall's Alley was the center of a zone of sanctuary for freedom seekers in Northern Liberties.

Let's look at the evidence.

An anti-slavery neighborhood

In 1827, the Quakers underwent a contentious split into two factions; the Hicksites and the Orthodox. This split lasted almost a hundred years. It's a long story but for our purposes here, we need to know that the Hicksite Quakers were extremely anti-slavery. Most of the members of the Anti-Slavery society where Hicksites. Robert Purvis, one of The Black Metropolis' luminary leaders, was a Hicksite Quaker.

And that split happened right around the corner from Paschall's Alley. Harry Kyriakodis notes that the the neighborhood surounding Paschall's Alley was a Hicksite Quaker enclave. This group of Anti-Slavery activists met at the Green Street Friends Meeting House.


What this means for Freedom Seekers is that white people in the neighborhood surrounding Paschall's were primarily allies, providing time, money and energy to emancipation activism. We can safely assume that the Green Street Friends Meeting House had to have been used for at least a few of these activities.

Two African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) churches

The A.M.E church in the 1800s in Philadelphia was continuously working for the emancipation of the enslaved. The church offered up not just religious activities, but legal and judicial, social and beneficial, and educational acitivies as well (see Van Gosse, 2022). A church functioned as a central organizing hub in a physical location and Black people built homes and businesses surouding the church.

In the 5 block radius around Paschall's Alley there were two A.M.E churches; Zoar A.M.E founded in 1794, and Union A.M.E, founded in 1815.

This meant that for freedom seekers, in one neighborhood, they had two places to land when they came to Philly. Basically it was like have two refugee agencies who would help you with basic needs when you arrived in the city.

Important UGRR Leaders lived close by

Jacob C. White Senior was a leader of The Vigilance Committee. He lived on Old York Road, which was a diagonal road that ran between 4th and 5th and Vine and Green. We've done some research on the house numbers of Old York Road enough to know that closer to Vine the numbers started from 1 -15 on the first block, which makes us think that 100 Old York Road, Jacob C. White's home, could have been at least two block up from Vine. There were a lot of industrial buildings on Old York and only a few spots of homes on the West Side - so we think 100 Old York Road was fairly close to Paschall's alley, maybe one or two blocks south.

Street Register showing the old and new street numbers. Courtesy the Philadelphia Contributionship.

Where we think Jacob C. White's house was in relationship to Paschall's Alley.

We already have indicators that Jacob C. White was working closely with William Whipper who sent freedom seekers from Columbia, PA to Philadelphia in hidden compartments in his train cars. Those trains arrived at William Whipper's coal and lumber yard at Broad and Noble which was a 10 block walk to Paschall's Alley.

We imagine that Jacob C. White's proximity both to the trains and to a place where people could live right away - Paschall's Alley - was purposeful and intentional to assist with the flow of freedom seekers.

On Paschall's Alley itself there were shoemakers, dressmakers, and tanners and we imagine that some of these Black business leaders helped provide attire to people who probably had frayed clothing from weeks of dangerous travel.

A Public School for Black Children

Perhaps another reason why there could be 'thousands' is that the Northern Liberties neighborhood provided immediate support but also the long-term stability of free schools for the children. The Northern Liberties public school was already open by 1838 with 220 Black students when it was listed in the report on the census. Those families who escaped together could find a full infrastructure of support to help them transition into new lives.

To sum, Paschall's Alley was located in a zone...

  1. Where two A.M.E churches were established and growing, providing a rich social support system to join.

  2. Where white people supported freedom seekers.

  3. That was close to powerful and connected anti-slavery leaders like Jacob C. White, Robert Purvis (who most likely attended the Green Street Meeting), and Lucretia Mott.

  4. That had social support with schools and Black owned businesses.

Given all of this evidence, we now can see how Mary Lewton could organize the support needed to assist thousands of people.

And we are amazed at the zone of sanctuary that is emerging in The Black Metropolis, one hinted at by physical infrastructure that now only exists in maps.

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