by: Treelines Team
At the beginning of this episode actress and singer Zooey Deschanel knows she comes from a long line of strong women. She and her father have long known that their Pownall ancestors were involved in abolition before the Civil War, but sadly, the details are lost to them.
With the recent passing of Zooey's grandmother Ann, herself a lifelong activist who worked to end slavery world-wide, Zooey feels an additional impetus to recover her forgotten family history.
Isn't that how it always is... we've heard more than we ever realized about our family history, but we didn't manage to retain it...
Zooey's first stop, to the Philadelphia Public Library, introduces her to this whole part of her family tree -- Quakers all. But her first discovery is the opposite of what she expected -- Sarah Henderson's father, Thomas, owned a slave in 1800!
It turns out that though Thomas' wife and children were Quakers, he was not. Quakers emphasized marriage for love, which is the best explanation for this unexpected match.
Recognizing that Sarah perhaps grew up in a household with a slave, surrounded by relatives who owned slaves -- as though it were the most normal thing in the world -- makes her life's journey all the more remarkable.
Zooey's next stop to the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College gets her deep into minutes of the Quaker community from the first half of the 19th c.
She reads how Sarah joined a committee of men and women in early 1848 rallying for a more impassioned approach to ending slavery. The committee circulated a radical pamphlet condemning the government and those who "lend [their] support to a government that sanctions and perpetuates [the oppressor's] wrongs."
Though there was no longer slavery in the north as there was in her childhood, most Northerners were not abolitionists. Those who were were considered zealots and were often ostracized, if not outright threatened. For Sarah to attach her name so publicly to the cause was extremely brave and courageous. The staunch egalitarianism of the Quakers made it possible for her as a woman to play so public a role.
Zooey's third stop is to the Lancaster Historical Society near when Sarah lived. It turns out she was in a community that was a hotbed of abolitionist activity -- both because there were so many Quakers and also because the county immediately bordered the Mason-Dixon line separating the free state of PA from the slave state of MD.
Zooey correctly guesses that there must have been a lot of Underground Railroad activity in the area to help slaves escape from the South to Canada... but she couldn't possibly guess at the scope of the activity...
...starting with a famous stop on the Underground Railroad located on the farm of Sarah and her husband, Levi!
For years they rented land, including a house just a quarter-mile from theirs, to a fugitive slave, William Parker, and his wife, Eliza. William was a both a conductor and a station master on the Underground Railroad, as well as the leader of an African-American militia which runaways.
His home was the site of the Christiana Resistance, a stand-off between free blacks in Lancaster County and slaveowners from MD. It was one of the most important events leading up to the Civil War.
The resistance took place a year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. This act fined law enforcement and government officials who did not return runaway slaves, making it their duty to arrest anyone suspected of being one. As a result, all free blacks were in terrible danger, especially since they were not eligible for a trial. Even regular citizens like Levi & Sarah who aided runaways were subject to imprisonment and fines. While at her family's farm on the site where the resistance took place, Zooey learned how this law "turbocharged" the abolitionist movement.
Events came to a head on 9/11/1851 (yes, 9/11) when a slave owner from MD, Edward Gorsuch, arrived at Parker's house with a posse to retrieve his fugitive slaves. William's wife trumpeted a horn across the valley, and 60 men, mostly African-Americans, came rushing to the Parkers' defense. Men on both sides were armed. A battle erupted.
Edward Gorsuch was killed, and his son Dickinson almost killed. The police fled, frightened of black people defending themselves. The fugitive slaves were not captured.
Afterwards, Dickinson was taken to Levi & Sarah's house to be nursed back to health! Many of his supporters and other townspeople crowded the house at that time. Hidden inside were William Parker and his brother-in-law. The Pownall family provided them with clothes and food and snuck them out of the house. It is clear they had done this before.
Parker made it to safety in Canada.
The events were widely reported across the country. "Civil War, The First Blow Struck," read one headline.
The reaction was a "reign of terror" in Lancaster County. "Negroes were hunted like partridges... their homes were invaded; people were dragged out, arrested, interrogated, beaten." Thirty-eight of the Pownalls' neighbors, black and white, were arrested for treason. After the first was acquitted, charges were dropped against the rest.
One friend of the Gorsuch family was especially embittered by the events. He was John Wilkes Booth.
This "best and most capable woman" died within a year of the resistance. She never lived to see how the direct contributions she made to the anti-slavery movement finally culminated in emancipation.
"She believed in a higher law that required her to do the right thing," Zooey learned. It wasn't that Sarah was thrust into difficult circumstances like so many of the heroes we learn about on WDYTYA. She put herself and her family at the radical edge of a radical movement. Time and again, she chose to take incredible risks.
And all at time when most woman were extremely marginalized on the world stage!