For the thousands of slaves using the Underground Railroad to escape the south, reaching Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties offered hope that the journey to freedom might soon be over.
Communities such as Somers Point and Egg Harbor City in Atlantic County and Springtown in Cumberland County offered those escaping slavery a direct path to Pennsylvania, a state that had outlawed slavery, said Michelle Craig McDonald, interim provost and associate professor of history at Stockton University.
“The goal of slaves on the Underground Railroad was to make it to Pennsylvania,” McDonald said. “Think about New Jersey as the gateway or the last stop in a journey. When you got to Egg Harbor City you knew freedom was days away.”
The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used in the 19th century by enslaved people of African descent in the United States, in efforts to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.
“These places that were located around the water had small communities, so you could go from small community to small community without anyone noticing you,” McDonald said.
The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in tiny Springtown was a significant stop along an Underground Railroad route running from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Canada.
Aided by abolitionist Quakers in the village of Greenwich, free black people from Springtown, native Lenni Lenape, and according to historical county lore, Harriet Tubman, an unknown but significant number of slaves used the church as a station on the Underground Railroad. The swamps and woods around the sanctuary were a frequent hiding place for slaves trying to avoid bounty hunters paid to return those runaways to their masters in the South.
“I’m sure that many people don’t realize how much of an impact South Jersey had on the Underground Railroad,” said Paul W. Schopp, assistant director of the South Jersey Center at Stockton.
Cape May also played a prominent role in Underground Railroad, McDonald said.
“It’s the proximity to Delaware and Maryland that made these locations on the southern coast like Cape May so attractive,” McDonald said. “During that time, land crossings were actually much more difficult than water crossings. So places that had water access became more popular. You would only go to these places if you knew you had connections, and in Cape May there where locations that people knew that they could count on.”
Finding reliable numbers for escaped slaves who traveled through New Jersey, let alone Atlantic County, has proven tricky, McDonald said. The national estimate for the Underground Railroad is between 30,000 and 40,000 escapees, McDonald said.
“One of the biggest issues to finding these things is that records where not kept,” she said
The small-town nature of cities such as Somers Point made them attractive stops on the Underground Railroad, McDonald said.
“It’s because it’s smaller that it works well,” McDonald said. “People didn’t want other people know that they were doing this.”