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Bellefonte played major role in Underground Railroad

An installation by artist Lino Toyos is part of the Bellefonte Art Museum’s exhibit on the Underground Railroad, which is in a room believed to have housed people along the Underground Railroad.
An installation by artist Lino Toyos is part of the Bellefonte Art Museum’s exhibit on the Underground Railroad, which is in a room believed to have housed people along the Underground Railroad. Centre Daily Times, file

The Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County has opened a permanent exhibit to commemorate the role of our region in the operations of the Underground Railroad. Unbeknownst to many residents of Bellefonte, the town was a major stop for secret travelers who were attempting journeys to freedom. Although it is thought that there were several area locations used by slaves fleeing north, until now there has been no place in the Bellefonte borough where a visitor might learn about that tragic time in our history.

One local space used by people to hide while traveling on the Underground Railroad is known as the “secret room,” in the attic area of the Linn House, the home of the Bellefonte Art Museum. Museum staff were made aware of this space several years ago but waited until enough documentation was available to be assured the space could reliably be known for its role in the network of escape.

The Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped slaves escape to freedom in the early years of the 19th century. These dangerous treks were made with the help of secret messages and rumors. Travelers, mostly by foot, went from the places where people were enslaved in the South to the Northeast, Midwest and Canada.

In the exhibit, an installation by local artist Lino Toyos serves to represent what adults and children may have experienced hiding in this small dark space. There is a visitor’s area in front of the secret room, which contains information about the operations of the Underground Railroad and artwork depicting the courage and suffering of enslaved African-Americans.

The identities of people who helped slaves generally are not known. Those who helped could be punished, sometimes severely. Bellefonte citizen William Ashbridge Thomas, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is known to have been active in the operations of the Underground Railroad. It is thought that he opened his home to escapees. He was a successful businessman and is remembered as an altruistic and generous member of the community. His son, Jacob Valentine Thomas, lived in the Linn House and continued his father’s work by harboring escaped slaves.

About the same time that the Thomases were active, a local group of African-Americans founded a branch of the African-American Episcopal Church in Bellefonte. The AME church was also involved with the Underground Railroad network. Many slaves who made it safely to Bellefonte stayed in the area. Around the turn of the century, there was a large local population of African-Americans, including William Mills, the grandfather of the internationally recognized singing group, the Mills Brothers.

OLLI at Penn State, a membership organization open to adults who love to learn, will offer more than 80 courses this summer. Patricia House will lead two courses entitled “Bellefonte’s Underground Railroad.” To receive a free catalog for the summer session, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.

Patricia House is the executive director of the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County.

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