Logo and Link Home

Facebook  Instagram  LinkedIn  YouTube

Contact Us | Resources | News Media | Donate

Commemorating our 250th anniversary with inclusive programs that inspire Americans to renew and strengthen our daring experiment in democracy.

Path to Freedom 

Click here for the Harriet Tubman Byway website

Path to Freedom: Phase I Overview - The Underground Railroad in Chester County (1780 to 1865)

Countdown to July 4 2026

The collected stories of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) relate a monumental chapter in American history. Not only did the stories highlight the tensions that rendered America asunder during the Civil War, they also epitomized the relentless pursuit of freedom and justice. Even though there were several Underground Railroad routes through the United States, the path into Pennsylvania and Chester County in particular, was different. 

Passage of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly meant freedom seekers who reached the state had the prospect of achieving ‘freedom.’ Bordered by the slave states of Maryland and Delaware, Chester County was the first stop for many of the enslaved as they “crossed the line.” Even though the freedom seekers were still in danger of recapture, the most active clandestine network of abolitionists and sympathizers in the Country worked tirelessly within a landscape of resistance to send them onto safety. 

Over several decades, the UGRR facilitated the escape of countless African American freedom seekers from the bonds of enslavement in the South to freedom in the North. During passage between a series of safe houses, “conductors” and “station masters” provided shelter, food, guidance, support, and transportation for “passengers” on this perilous journey. 

Ultimately, when the tyranny of the Civil War subsided, the story of African Americans in Chester County did not end. Many freedom seekers stayed to create communities and despite the odds, these communities strived to build a life of dignity, establishing schools, businesses, and a multitude of churches, not just as a place of worship, but as community centers and platforms for civil rights activism.  

Path to Freedom: Phase II Overview - Reconstruction and Civil Rights (1866 to present)

Facing a new reality after the Civil War, reconstruction, while initially promising, ultimately fell short of providing true equality. African Americans in Chester County, like elsewhere, had to navigate a society still steeped in racial prejudice and institutional barriers. While the thoughts of others in the region moved towards women’s rights and the importance of providing educational opportunities, the Great Migration from the South saw millions of African Americans move to the urban North in search of better opportunities.

The Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century saw strong local African American leaders emerge to organize protests and advocate for equality and justice, part of the larger national struggle against segregation and discrimination. In a mix of progress and setbacks, some individuals and businesses thrived, while systemic inequalities often hampered others to achieve economic growth. Access to quality education, employment opportunities, and housing remained significant challenges. Although often overlooked, the contributions of African American women in shaping their communities, leading civil rights initiatives, initiating educational reforms and community development projects, were fundamental to achieving resilience and growth in their communities. In addition, several Chester County African Americans went on to achieve significant notoriety in various professional fields and play an influential role on the national stage.

In more recent years, Chester County experienced a demographic shift, which brought new dynamics and racial and ethnic diversification, as immigrants from many countries arrived to become part of the mix. Communities continue to face economic disparities, racial discrimination, and gentrification. At the same time, preserving the rich cultural heritage of African Americans in Chester County has become a continuing goal in order to forge and maintain a strong cultural identity and educate younger generations about the enduring legacy of their history and heritage. As the communities move into the future, they continue to evolve, confronting new challenges and seizing opportunities to further the pursuit of equality and empowerment.

The Current Effort

The latest recognition of the importance of the story of the Underground Railroad and its history in Chester County was the state designation in 2022 of the Harriet Tubman UGRR Byway managed by the Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway Commission (BVSBC). The Commission subsequently formed an advisory committee to bring together a coalition of key UGRR groups in the area to tell the full story and its broader significance to the nation. Realizing that this work intersected directly with the work of the Path to Freedom, one of the four projects of the Chester County 250 Heritage Sites Legacy Committee, a joint non-duplicative structure is being formed to support a coordinated effort. This effort will also encourage the preservation and support of key UGRR sites, while providing a guide for residents and visitors alike to experience the story of the Underground Railroad in Chester County.