7 Steps to Freedom: Finding the Underground Railroad in Salem County

Aired: July 31, 2011

Photo courtesy of Wendel White

Although helping slaves escape bondage was illegal, an extensive network of African Americans and whites worked on the Underground Railroad to bring people into freedom. Southern New Jersey was an important node, as it bordered slave states like Delaware, but was, by the early 19th century, a free state. A number of Underground Railroad sites in southern New Jersey remain, particularly in Salem County, where Quaker residents were actively involved. In this episode of Humanities Connection, James Turk, Director of Cultural Affairs and Tourism Information Services of the Salem County Cultural and Heritage Commission and Wendel White, professor of photography at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, discuss the history of the Underground Railroad in Salem County. Both are involved in “Seven Steps to Freedom,” a project that seeks to bring the history of the Underground Railroad to life through an audio tour of seven sites in Salem County, a photography exhibition and video podcasts. Based on historical records, the audio tour features the words of slaves risking their lives to get to freedom as well as the courageous people who aided them in their journey.

Why did Salem County become an important site on the Underground Railroad? Location was key, as it bordered slaveholding Delaware, but so was population. Abolitionist Quakers made up a sizable part of the population, as did free blacks, who lived in several communities in the county. The story of a black soldier, which is a clip from the project’s audio tour, shows what made Salem County an important access point on the Underground Railroad.

When she wrote the poem “The Little Wanderer,” Esther “Hetty” Saunders was a servant living in Salem County. How she got there, however, is a dramatic tale of her father’s escape from slavery. In a time when few African Americans were literate, Saunders wrote poetry that, as we hear in two clips, offers a personal and vivid peek into the world of a woman who barely escaped a life of bondage. Her words hint at a story that history has often ignored.

The use of photography in the mid 19th century by Matthew Brady and others has ensured that images of soldiers and battlegrounds continue to dominate our national memory of the Civil War. Using images of the contemporary landscape of Salem County, White urges us to consider how seemingly unremarkable places, like the home of Abigail Goodwin, a Quaker woman whose home was part of the Underground Railroad can resonate with history.


To Learn More Visit:

  • NJCH Grants which support projects like 7 Steps to Freedom.
  • Wendel White’s website, which features his photographic work on African American history in Southern New Jersey and around the nation.
  • Salem County, where you can visit the historical sites visited in these clips.

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