Thursday, December 1, 2011

My Dad's College Paper on the Underground Railroad in Massachusetts

A long time ago my Mom gave me a paper my Dad had written in college.  I never really read through it until this week, when I took a good look at it and noticed he was using some sources from the Historical Collections of the Danvers Historical Society.  This was a great resource I've used many times.  The title of the paper was "The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts".  When I mentioned the paper on Facebook, many of my genealogy and history friends comment back "post it!"

My father was John Warren Wilkinson,  born in Beverly, Massachusetts on 3 January 1934.  He was from a modest background, and was the first member of his family to graduate from a college.  He was the youngest of three, and his two older brothers served in the military at the end of WWII and in occupied Japan.  Because college was expensive, he commuted by train every day to Boston from home, and worked at night as a security guard at the United Shoe Machinery Corporation in Beverly.

My father started attending Northeastern University in Boston in the fall of 1953, and he transferred the next fall to Boston University.  His original major was Chemistry, but when he transferred to B.U. he changed his major to Government, and his plan was to enter the foreign service.  He graduated from Boston University in 1957.  His first job was teaching American History at Salem High School.  Later, he spent the rest of his career in the life insurance business.

It is interesting to remember that Dr. Martin Luther King received his doctorate in theology at Boston University in 1955.  I wonder if their paths ever crossed?  Dad always was proud that Dr. King went to his alma mater, but he never mentioned anything more.

I'll start here with a letter I found inside the report.  I'll post more about the paper, including an entire transcription of it, over the next few days.

My Dad typed up this letter and included it inside his college paper, with Walter Gerritson's drawing

                                                                                    179 Ash Street
                                                                                    Waltham 54
                                                                                    March 12, 1954
Dear Mr. Wilkinson

Yours recieved and I wish that I could answer all the questions but I'll do the best that I can.

What I learned was from Cyrus King Littlefield.  We always called him King.  He lived on Ash St. and he told me that about dusk some times he would see two or three negros come crawling out from under the barn and they would travel with the North Star to guide them.  All was kept as secret as possible and among as few as possible.  These things King learned as he grew older.

The barn where they were hidden day times had only a cellar under the cows and horses on the South side of the barn so the negros would have a large space on the dirt under the barn floor.  There they would find food.  The few who were running this would be notified at the next station ahead and know when to look for the new comers.  Some times there were men around trying to capture the escaped slaves.  And so there could be no traveling until they were told that the coast was clear.

I don't know [who] was the owner of the barn but it was built by Jonas Parker who lived up Ash St.  I tried to make a drawing of the barn and every one looks worse than the one before it.

There were directed where the next stopping place would be.  And who would be on the look out for them. Some times they would be fortunate to ride some of the way.  King said that they would have a stick over their shoulder with a little bundle on it.  Probably clothing and perhaps food.

                                                        Hoping that [I] may be some [help]
                                                        I am with best wishes
                                                        Yours respectfully
                                                        Walter Gerritson
Aged 93 years


Stay tuned to more posts this week, with the rest of the paper and other interesting information...

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4
Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Wow, what a treasure.

    It's mind boggling to think that someone only our parents' age had direct access to people with these memories. Good reminder that we should be talking to our own octo- and nanogenarian friends and family and recording their stories.

  2. So glad that you posted this, Heather--the words of persons who had been witnesses of history such as this-- are priceless!

    Within the African American community, it is amazing to think that there are so few people still living who had known a former slave in their lifetime. And now--those whose grandparents were slaves, they too are leaving us.

    Letters such as the one you posted, reflected a lesser known movement--because it had to remain secret--that of the Underground Railroad--a network of strangers who assisted human beings on their quest for freedom. Thanks for sharing this rare letter!

  3. Thank you for sharing this historical letter. I am looking forward to reading more.

  4. This gave me chills. To have these kind of accounts are so powerful. One of the hardest searches in the African American community is trying to trace a runaway slave. But certain questions are never answered, but yet actually haunt descendants. What path did they take? What did they eat? Who helped them along they way? These kind of papers are priceless to us all!

  5. Hi Heather - I came across your blog by following a link at The Road Backward - and I'm glad I did. Thanks for sharing this letter. It's amazing to think that all of this happened on Ash Street in Waltham. I'm glad I found your blog and look forward to reading more.

  6. Wow! How powerful to think that your dad corresponded with a man who had access to this account of history.

    BTW, my dad is just a few days older than yours, and HE attended Northeastern for awhile! What a small world.

  7. I'm confused by your timeline of your father's major being chemistry originally. Was that in 1953, when he started out at Northeastern? Could not have then been because of Sputnik, because that was not until 1957.

    Other than that admittedly nitpicky point, this makes me wonder what my daughters and grandsons will think of my papers and what will be my master's thesis. Unfortunately, my papers do not have such wonderful living sources as their foundations!

  8. Karen, you are right! I have no idea why he changed his major then, but government seems like a better fit than chemistry for someone who was a life time history lover!