Harrisburg’s Role in the Underground Railroad

Harrisburg is foundationally diverse and progressive as a direct result of its pivotal role in the underground railroad.

The Underground Railroad, which facilitated in freeing thousands of enslaved African Americans, had its route right through Harrisburg. Freed slaves either chose to stay in Harrisburg or continue even further North.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required all escaped slaves, even if in Northern territory, to be returned at the expense of the federal government. An oppressive justice system that forbade suspected slaves from defending themselves in court and imposed harsh fines against those who helped free African Americans defined the heroic efforts of those who took part in the Underground Railroad.

Harrisburg, being the Capitol in the first northern state, was a popular destination for freed slaves. Harrisburg Magazine writes, “From the 1850s to the beginning of the Civil War, the Underground Railroad flourished, and Harrisburg became a popular destination because of its location on the Susquehanna River and its proximity to points West, East and especially North. Harrisburg was a stop between places like Wrightsville and Cumberland County and sympathetic towns in northern Pennsylvania.”

Explore PA History shares two historical buildings that participated in the Underground Railroad were the house of Joseph Bustill and the home of William Jones. These two men were responsible for assisting escaped slaves to make their way through Harrisburg.

Many freed slaves who remained in Harrisburg congregated in Tanner’s Lane- a vibrant community. However, this community was eventually demolished to make room for the emerging Capitol building.