The Wayside and the Underground Railroad

National Network to Freedom logo with a gold star and face within.
The Wayside is part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, administered by the National Park Service. This program commemorates and preserves the historical significance of the Underground Railroad which sought to address the injustices of slavery and make freedom a reality in the United States and is a crucial element in the evolution of our national civil rights movement.

The Wayside house in Concord, Massachusetts has witnessed a dramatic spectrum of American History including the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.
 

Slavery in Concord Pre-Revolution

Shortly after the arrival of European colonists the institution of slavery impacted every aspect of Anglo-European society including the small community of Concord. Samuel Whitney, merchant, delegate to the Provincial Congress, and muster master of the Concord Minute Men enslaved two men at his home now known as The Wayside. Samuel Whitney's family was one of twelve enslaving families in Concord when the American Revolution began.

According to a story told by Henry David Thoreau, one enslaved man named Casey escaped from Concord just before the American Revolution. Although the exact details of Casey's journey remain a mystery, he returned to Concord as a free man after the war.

Enslavers and Patriots

When colonial patriots voiced their commitment to the fight for freedom and made the first military stand against British oppression in April 1775, they did so while maintaining a firm grasp on human enslavement.

This contradiction was not lost on everyone. Lemuel Haynes, an African American Patriot wrote,

"...I query, whether Liberty is so contracted a principle as to be Confin'd to any nation under Heaven; nay, I think it not hyperbolical to affirm, that Even an Affrican, has Equally as good a right to his Liberty in common with Englishmen."

 

After the Revolution

People of color fought for freedom in many ways, including a series of lawsuits now known as Freedom Suits. In 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared slavery was incompatible with the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. Although the state did not abolish slavery outright these victories ushered in an era of gradual emancipation. To learn more about Freedom Suits visit https://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/index.php?id=54

By the 1830s, organized groups in Concord and other northern states advocated for general abolition. Unfortunately, the institution of slavery steadily grew across America. Although the enforcement of a 1793 Fugitive Slave Law remained relatively lax, freedom seekers that escaped north were never totally free from discrimination and the fear of being kidnapped. In Boston a large community of free African Americans and freedom seekers formed by the early 1800s. They were soon threatened by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. To learn more about this community visit Boston African American National Historical Site.

 
Louisa May Alcott portrait
Louisa May Alcott

Freedom Seekers at Hillside

By April of 1845, The Wayside, then dubbed "Hillside," was owned by Bronson and Abigail Alcott whose children were Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May. The Alcott's were prominent abolitionists in Concord and maintained active ties to various anti-slavery organizations across the United States.

In late 1846 and early 1847, the Alcotts aided at least one freedom seeker on his journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad. This network of safe houses and sympathetic individuals helped ferry freedom seekers away from slavery. Mrs. Alcott wrote to her brother in January, 1847:

"We have had an interesting fugitive here for 2 weeks--right from Maryland. He was anxious to get to Canada and we have forwarded him the best way we could. His sufferings have been great, his intrepidity unparalleled. He agrees with us about [boycotting] slave produce. He says it is the only way the abolition of the slave can ever be effected. He says it will never be done by insurrection..."

According to Abigail, the family discussed economic pressure as a way to facilitate the destruction of slavery. Although the family hoped a general boycott of goods produced using enslaved labor would bring about a quicker resolution, the system remained intact for another eighteen years until the American Civil War.

In 1847, Bronson Alcott described the arrival of this same freedom seeker in his journal:

"He is scarce thirty years old, athletic, dexterous, sagacious, and self-relying. He has many of the elements of a hero. His stay with us has given image and a name to the dire entity of slavery, and was an impressive lesson to my children, bringing before them the wrongs of the black man and his tales of woe."

The Alcott's involvement in the antislavery movement brought young Louisa and her sisters into contact with some of its most ardent champions of abolition: William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker to name a few.

Last updated: May 12, 2021

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