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Waverly and the Underground Railroad

As we celebrate Black History Month, we take a trip back in time to the Civil War era. A small community in our area played a big role in the Underground Railroad.

WAVERLY, Pa. — We're all familiar with the story of the Underground Railroad, but perhaps you didn't know how our area fit into that story.

A program in Lackawanna County is working to change that. We take a look at that during this Black History Month.

The doors to many homes in Waverly look unassuming, familiar. In the late 1800s, people inside them often were, too.

"People like Leonard Batchelor, whose house is kind of right behind us here," said E.J. Murphy as he gave Newswatch 16 a tour inside the Waverly Community House.

But back then, those doors, and the people who answered them, could mean the difference between life and death.

"You better hope that the guy who Mr. Gildersleeve told you about, you better hope that he's there and willing to help out, or else you might be in trouble," Murphy said.

Murphy is the program coordinator for the walking tour that takes you through the stops on the Underground Railroad in Waverly.

Along the way, he hopes to challenge some of our common misconceptions.

For one, the Underground Railroad wasn't a neat, precise system. 

"It was a little bit more like a wing and prayer," Murphy said.

"Conductors" could change their mind about participating whenever they wanted. God forbid you knocked on the wrong door, not everyone in the north was in favor of abolishing slavery.

"Even though yes, Waverly was a place where people came, and they were safe and they, you know, they were able to make a life here after living in slavery, they had people who were sympathetic to their cause," explained Murphy. "You have all that, but at the same time, you have neighbors who are also skeptical of what's going on and probably aren't very supportive of the Underground Railroad System and the people who are involved."

One example of that can be found inside the Waverly Community House in a newspaper article from the Lackawanna Register

"So, this is a democratic paper. They're talking about the abolition of slavery. What they're basically saying in this column is that it's a bad thing."

Murphy says this split in opinion was not unique to Waverly, but because of its history with the Underground Railroad, people tend to forget this side of the story.

"It's kind of hard to look at the society that you live in and say, well, we weren't perfect either. And I think it's important for us to realize that because if we have this time period where we thought that everyone was fighting for some righteous cause, it's important to look at how we approach those same issues today."

And Murphy says that's not to take away from the pride people who live here feel towards their community and the former residents who risked their lives to house former slaves.

"I think showing that complexity with the neighbors who maybe weren't so sympathetic, again, just kind of highlights just how brave and bold those actions actually were."

So what happened after the escaped slaves found freedom here in Waverly? 

Some did stick around. They built houses and joined the community. Others left for bigger cities to pursue better economic opportunities.

But surely none of them forgot the goodwill shown to them in a little rural town in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Click here to learn more about the walking tour in Waverly.

See more Black History Month stories on WNEP's Youtube page.

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