Walk Across Chester County: Making Community Connections

On my most recent Walk to Freedom journey, October 9-17, 2023 I walked about 75-miles across Chester County, Pennsylvania to meet African American descendants whose families date back to the 1800s and 1900s across the county. On this journey, I wanted to learn about the Free African American communities in Chester County just north of the Mason-Dixon line before and after the Civil War. Many members of these communities moved fluidly back and forth across the Delaware and Maryland borders during slavery for business, church revival meetings, and sometimes at great risk to bring family and liberty seekers across the line to freedom.

Hinsonville, a community started by free African Americans, in present day Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, or Lower Oxford township, is located six miles above the Mason-Dixon line, and is named for its first permanent resident, Emory Hinson, a Maryland-born free Black man. The last remaining building from this era is the Hosanna AUMP Church and cemetery. Once known as the Hosanna Meeting House, it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and noted abolitionists such as Frederick Douglas and Soujourner Truth spoke at the Meeting House. About 40 African Methodist Episcopal and/or African Union Methodist churches once dotted the landscape across Chester County yet few  published stories exist about the Black communities that supported these churches. Some of the churches founded after the Civil War or during the early 1900s still remain active today across the county. Others no longer exist except for the cemetery where the churches once stood.

On my walk I encountered several cemeteries with Colored Civil War soldiers  where churches once existed, but I decided to limit the number of cemeteries I visited unless I could find a descendant or historian who could talk about the cemetery’s history. I wasn’t trying to do a Black cemetery walk which had occurred to me as I planned this journey. There are far too many Black cemeteries across Chester County to walk to. Yet they tell the story of the existence of the Black community that once thrived in this storied county that was a hotbed of abolition. A good article on efforts to rescue African American burial grounds and the deep conflicts over inheritance and representation can be found in a 2021 New Yorker Magazine article titled When Black History is Unearthed, Who Gets to Speak for the Dead.

My reflections on free African communities along the border of former slave states, derives from a book I read by Cheryl Janifer LaRoche titled the Geography of Resistance, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad

LaRoche writes in the preface of her book, “By using the land as a document and relying on archaeology and community and church histories, in addition to traditional Underground Railroad stories, the lives of the people forming church and community finally connected.”

Geography of Resistance has reshaped my perspective in the way I look at the landscape underfoot after walking hundreds of miles following the Underground Railroad across the Northeastern US and Civil Rights trails in the Deep South.  Hinsonville like other free African American communities across the country, strategically located along the border with slave states as documented in LaRoche’s book, are not by accident.  My walk across Chester County helped me connect with at least three of these communities, Hinsonville, Bucktoe, and Pocopson about ten miles apart from each other along the southern border of the county.

From these initial communities, I continued my walk to Kennett Square, Pocopson, Valley Township, Coatesville, Caln, Downingtown, West Chester, Yellow Springs, and ending eight days later in Phoenixville along the Schuylkill River.

In the following posts, I’ll share pictures and interviews with descendants I met along the way who kindly share stories about their family’s history and growing up in Chester County.