Foulke Family Helps the Underground Railroad
Originally published in the Foulke Family Herald, May 1993
The year 1861 proved to be one of unrest in the Gwynedd community for it marked the start of the Civil war. By this time, the question had been resolved in Gwynedd for nearly a century. Quakers had long recognized the injustice of keeping slaves. They began purging their membership of the practice upon arrival in the New World and called for the rest of the community to abolish it as well.
Quaker families opened their homes to slaves fleeing northward on the Underground Railroad in the 1840s and 1850s. Montgomery County was one of the strongest links in the Underground Railroad because of active anti-slavery groups like the Quakers. Old York Road, which ran from Philadelphia to New York, was one of the major tracks along the route to freedom in Canada. By day, it appeared to be a muddy horse-and-buggy trail that weaved its way north through eastern Montgomery County and was used by farmers to transport their goods to Philadelphia. By night, slaves cautiously making their way to freedom traveled the road as they followed the North Star. They sought refuge along the way in the homes of abolitionists and free blacks who had vowed to aid them in their quests.
According to local history, Pennsylvania was a key state on the underground railroad, Montgomery County being one of the main routes. Plymouth Meeting, Norristown, Penllyn and LaMott were all major stops on the Railroad as they received slaves coming through the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
The southern track of the railroad, which ran from Plymouth Meeting to Buckingham (Bucks County), had a station near Penllyn, near the Orthodox Friends Meeting House, run by William Foulke. Eliza Ambler Foulke, historian of the Gwynedd Friends Meeting, wrote of "a large mound on the side of the meeting house, opposite the graveyard and easily discernible from the road" which her grandmother identified as a sheltering cave used to hide fugitive slaves.
Obvious relics from the days of the Underground Railroad can be seen at houses here and around the country. These are the two-foot high statues of black jockeys that have presently taken on a negative connotation but originally were intended as tributes to slaves.
History holds that statue was molded after a 12-year-old slave who had been a groomsman for General George Washington. When Washington crossed the Delaware, he left the boy on the shore holding his horse and a lantern. Upon his return, he found the boy had frozen to death. So enamored was he by the boy's faithfulness, Washington had a statue constructed to commemorate him.
Slaves seeking refuge along the route needed to know whether a house was safe. One of the most common signals of safety was the statue of a black jockey with a red cap. Conductors on the Underground Railroad would place U.S. flags or lighted lanterns in the statue's hands to signify that it was safe to enter. The absence of a flag or lantern meant slaves should wait or move on to the next depot.
The Foulke family, staunch Quakers, put their beliefs into action. They truly believed slavery was unjust and were willing to sacrifice their personal well being to help escaping slaves find freedom. Although the job was hazardous, arduous and tedious, William Foulke's family lived their beliefs in their daily lives and many fleeing slaves and their descendants owe their lives and freedom to William, his family and many other willing to work for their beliefs.
Section last updated February 02, 2001