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This area’s popular ‘underground railroad’

Dibble’s Dabbles

June 21, 2011
By (the late) Billie Dibble, Former Westfield Historian (1975-2006)
First published October 7, 1982:

In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, thousands of slaves from the southern states were attempting to escape to freedom in the northern states and in Canada.

We know that many of them were harbored in this area on their way to Canada and were aided by sympathetic men and women who were brave enough to risk the consequences of heavy fine or imprisonment should they be caught breaking the law by helping these slaves on their journey to freedom. Even at the time when this was happening, it was necessary to keep it “hush-hush.” Small wonder that it is difficult to reconstruct the story at this late date. Many stories have been told and re-told so that at this point it is almost impossible to tell fact from fiction.

The Westfield Republican of March 26, 1913 announced that Principal Frank S. Fosdick of Buffalo would give a lecture at Welch Hall on March 28 on the subject of “The Underground Railroad.” Admission was to be 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for students. The following week a brief summary of the lecture was printed. Mr. Fosdick’s talk dealt mostly with instances which happened in Buffalo where his father then resided and often assisted as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. However, Mr. Fosdick did mention that there was a station “where the Westfield High School now stands” (now [1982] at the location of Bell’s Super Market). [Editor’s note: Now, in 2011, where Top’s Super Market is located]. Other Westfield stations, he said, were “on Clinton Street in a house then owned by Mrs. Dilley and occupied by R.C. Johnston, a former legislator and friend of William Lloyd Garrison, the Dieffenbach house on Clinton Street then occupied by David Hall, the John Frances house on the corner of Jefferson and Franklyn Streets, since torn down, and others which rumor names but of which we have not the proof.”

The reference to the station where the old high school stood would have been the site of the Holt house in pre-Civil War days. We have heard the story of the slaves’ escape under a wagon load of hay while the authorities stood and let them pass. Fact or Fiction?

Probably the most authentic story of the Underground Railroad in Westfield appeared in the Republican of January 2, 1924. It was related by Mrs. Amoretta Fraser of Brooklyn, formerly of Westfield, in a paper sent to the Patterson Chapter D.A.R. The paper was read by Mrs. Boult. (Mrs. Fraser was a prominent club woman in Brooklyn who lived to be well over a hundred years of age. She never forgot her girlhood in Westfield and wrote about it on many occasions).

I quote from Mrs. Fraser’s paper: “In the year 1840 my father moved our family into the new cottage house which he had built on Clinton Street in Westfield. I was then four years old.

“The house next door to the east was larger and more portentous than ours and was occupied by the family of Rossiter P. Johnson. He was a lawyer and actively interested in political affairs and was for some years a member of the state legislature, and worked with other abolitionists in the philanthropy of the Underground Railroad.

“Mrs. Johnson was a charming woman and a fine homemaker. A little gate was made between our rear gardens so that we could pass through from side door to back or kitchen door whenever there was occasion for interchange of neighborly favor.

“I remember the cold, raw morning in a late spring. It must have been in 1841, when my mother sent me on an errand to Mrs. Johnson’s.

“When I lifted the latch and entered the kitchen of the Johnson home, the sight which greeted my astonished gaze was so surprising that I stood still with my back against the wall, unable to move or speak.

“I had never seen any black people and here in this immense kitchen seated in a row around the entire wall were from 20 to 30 old and young black men and women. Mrs. Johnson came toward me with her finger to her lip and said ‘keep what you have seen here a secret, tell it to no one but your mother, she will understand and tell you about it and how important it is that nobody knows these people are here.’

“Mother explained to me the working of the humanitarian effort of a few earnest Northern men to help even a few of the enslaved negroes to escape from bondage and to reach a haven of safety from capture in Canada. She said those negroes had been brought the previous night at midnight, two big wagon loads of them, that they were hiding in the Johnsons’ home and that the next night they would be taken over to Canada.

“The name ‘Underground Railroad’ was a puzzle to me. How could these people come by ‘underground’ when they were brought in wagons above ground? ‘Only a name, child, to denote a secret passage by which these poor slaves may gain their freedom!”

Article Photos

Photo courtesy Patterson Library
On the back of this old photo is written, “Rossiter P. Johnson, died in May 1886, Lawyer whose home on Clinton Street next door east of the house occupied some years ago by the Holt family, more recently by John McCarty, was station for Underground Railroad.»



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