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Friends and neighbors were skeptical when Kennett Square resident Crystal Crampton decided 35 years ago she wanted to beautify Bucktoe Cemetery.
The burial ground was purchased by members of the African Union Church in 1824, and is now owned by Crampton’s church, New Garden Memorial UAME. It’s the final resting place for over 100 of the church’s former members, including at least nine members of the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War.
“At first when I took on this effort, people thought I was crazy,” Crampton, now the executive director and site coordinator at the cemetery, told WHYY’s Movers & Makers. “I was the girl with the boots in the cemetery.”
The veterans and formerly enslaved people buried at the cemetery are but one piece of Kennett Square’s rich history of abolition and African American life.
As of the most recent census, just 4.3% of Kennett Square’s population is Black (it’s nearly half Latino, as people who arrived to work the famed mushroom farms grew a thriving community). But the town played a notable role in the history of the Underground Railroad, hosting a number of efforts to help enslaved people find their way to freedom during the 19th century.
That history is something residents don’t want forgotten.
“We need to let people know, not only about our church but about everything that is part of Kennett Square,” said Rev. Beverly G. Bell, the pastor at New Garden Memorial, in a Movers & Makers interview. “Not just the mushrooms, not just the festivals, but the history that’s been here way before that even came about.”
A ‘boundary between freedom and slavery’
The geography of Kennett Square makes it almost destined to have been a significant point on the Underground Railroad.
Located approximately 40 miles south of Philadelphia, Kennett Square sits less than 15 miles from Pennsylvania’s border with Maryland and fewer than 5 miles from the border with Delaware — both states that allowed slavery through 1860. The proximity made Kennett Square, and Chester County more broadly, a crucial stopover for freedom seekers on their way north.
“We were the people that sent them to Philadelphia,” historian Christopher Densmore told Movers & Makers. “So we were the boundary between freedom and slavery.”
Another vital factor: in the 19th century, the area was largely populated by abolitionist Quakers, who were generally more tolerant of Black people than other groups at the time. There were about 10 different Quaker meeting houses within 10 miles of the town, Densmore estimated.
Several notable “stations” on the railroad existed in Kennett Square.
It’s hard to tell exactly how many residents took part, but Densmore said one book lists about 150 people in Chester County involved with the effort to help people escape enslavement.
Black residents were a significant force in Kennett Square, according to Michelle Sullivan from the Kennett Underground Railroad Center. Through years of research, Sullivan has found 100 to 120 people she believes were Black abolitionists in Chester County.
“There were Black people who owned their own homes, owned their own businesses, and therefore that made Kennett Square attractive, because Black people were accepting freedom seekers and helping them along,” said Terrence Maguire, president of the Kennett Underground Railroad Center.
A story that’s still being told
Preserving this lesser-known history has become a priority for several groups in the region.
Established in 1998, the volunteer-based nonprofit Kennett Underground Railroad Center collects history related to the town’s connections and hosts special events and guided tours of the area. The organization aims to eventually open a learning center.
The nonprofit Voices Underground is embarking on a project to “memorialize [the] incredible history” of the Underground Railroad in the Philadelphia region, including Kennett Square.
“We’re here to bring more understanding, more light, more information about the Underground Railroad, but also about African American history,” Alexander Parham, managing director of the nonprofit, told Movers and Makers.
As one piece of its effort, Voices Underground has partnered with Lincoln University to start an African American Cultural Heritage Center dedicated to uncovering Black history in Chester County.
Voices Underground also helped spearhead Juneteenth celebrations in Chester County last year along with the Chester County Historic Preservation Society, the Chester County History Center, and the Chester County Planning Commission. Among those events was a full weekend of programming in Kennett Square focusing on the town’s connections to abolitionism and freedom-seeking.
And over the years, Crampton’s grassroots efforts to preserve Bucktoe Cemetery have grown beyond herself. After doing things by herself for five years and then recruiting a group of community members, Crampton eventually enlisted the help of The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County to help formally maintain the historic resting place.
“The history here has been buried too long,” Crampton said. “There’s things that I want to do here so that when I leave, the story is still being told.”
For more on Underground Railroad in Kennett Square, you can watch Episode 3 of this season’s Movers & Makers by WHYY-TV.