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June 16, 2013

Region celebrates role in Underground Railroad

JOHNSTOWN — Years of research shows the bodies of at least five local abolitionists are buried in Sandyvale Memorial Cemetery.

On Sunday, those four men and one woman – and their stories – were honored as part of a ceremony marking the historic cemetery as a nationally recognized link to the Underground Railroad.

“This is a great day for our area,” said Sandyvale Memorial Gardens president William Horner, moments before unveiling a wayside marker telling some of the stories of local abolitionist events.

“We’re now starting to see the role Johnstown played ... to help runaway slaves find freedom.”

Sunday’s event highlighted the cemetery addition as one of 299 sites recognized by the National Park Service as part of the Network to Freedom.

The documented stories that have lived on are the reason behind the recognition, said Megan O’Malley, chief of interpretation for the local branch of the National Park Service.

Among them: William and Benjamin Slick’s efforts to help two runaway slaves find freedom in 1837 – as well as other efforts by John Cushon, and James and Charlotte Heslop, a husband and wife who set up safe houses in Johnstown. The Heslops hid runaway slaves in an old mine near their home and underneath a secret trap door leading to their cellar, local researchers said.

“These are just some of the stories,” said Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s learning resources Dean Barbara Zaborowski, who has been researching the area’s ties to the Underground Railroad for years.

She pointed to the story of William Fortune, a free black, and a barber in the 1840s who ministered to blacks in the city while working to support the anti-slavery cause.

“A lot of these stories we’re still learning about,” Zaborowski said, hoping those with Johnstown ties may be able to help in their search. “We’re still researching.”

The Slick farm, a more-than-130 acre farmstead in what is now Geistown, likely served as a stop for many more slaves fleeing the South in those days, she added.

Because Sandyvale, as a cemetery, cannot house historical markers, Zaborowski is hoping to add one in Geistown in the near future recognizing the farm.

Still, Horner said Sandyvale’s role is also pivotal, noting the cemetery counts both abolitionists and dozens of soldiers who fought for the North in the Civil War.

Sponsored by the Sandyvale group and the Johnstown branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the event also celebrated both Juneteenth and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation’s passage into law, the NAACP’s Ron Fisher said.

A crowd of about 60 attended despite a steady, at times, hard rain. Attendees picnicked under umbrellas while staff from the Somerset Historical Center greeted children in historical clothing, showing off 19th century wooden toys.

The event also included a DJ and live performances.

 

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