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Blairsville is shining spotlight on its place in Underground Railroad

| Friday, July 14, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Tour guide Marna Conrad outside the Blairsville Underground Railroad Museum in Blairsville, Pa., on Thursday, July 6, 2017.
Bruce Siskawicz | Trib Total Media
Ron and Ashlee Murphy of Indiana portray local 19th century Underground Railroad conductors John and Lucy Graff on Oct. 17 as they speak to visitors participating in the annual Twilight Tour program sponsored by Blairsville's Underground Railroad historical group at Blairsville Cemetery.
Tribune-Review file
Denise Jennings-Doyle of Blairsville portrays historical figure Jane Grey Swisshelm in 2015 at the Underground Railroad History Center in Blairsville for a group of Girl Scouts.
Mary Pickels
A flyer from 1769 depicts a slave sale, posted at the Blairsville Underground Railroad, where visitors can learn about the Appalachian efforts to help free the enslaved.
Mary Pickels
Guests come to Blairsville from all over the nation, and outside the U.S., curious about the regional efforts made to move slaves North to freedom via the underground railroad.
Mary Pickels
Schooling was done on the sly, as many masters forbid their slaves from learning to read and write.
Mary Pickels
Learning was illegal in four states from 1830-60, with teaching slaves believed to 'incite dissatisfaction of the mind.'
Mary Pickels
Sunday was a day of rest for some slave children, a few of whom enjoyed rare play time.

It's a chapter in America's history that many might wish to forget, a time when ownership of slaves caused a great division among citizens and government leaders.

It also was a time when those opposed to slavery put themselves at risk to help ensure liberty for all, setting up a "railroad" system, primarily safe houses, to help move African Americans fleeing enslavement in the South toward freedom in the North.

Existing law forbid aiding and abetting those slaves trying to escape.

Blairsville played a large role in the effort, one recognized through the establishment of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, a walking tour and a self-driving tour throughout Indiana County.

That regional history is worth preserving, center committee members — all volunteers — believe.

"It's a beautiful driving area you go through. The thing is, most of the houses are gone, or families are living there and you can't go inside," says Marna Conrad, 79, a volunteer and center guide.

Through grants, fundraising events and elbow grease, the committee was able to turn the former Second Baptist Church, built in 1917, into a small museum. The borough's oldest African-American church, it houses exhibits and artifacts, with tours offered by volunteers including Conrad.

Open by appointment May through October — the building has no heat, Conrad says — the site in recent weeks attracted visitors from California, Illinois, Tennessee and Korea, according to a guest book.

"Usually they are interested in the Underground Railroad and go online and find us," Conrad says.

The tours give visitors a look at the lives of slaves, including children, and the lengths to which they went to leave behind those lives.

"You see the distance that these fugitives had to go on foot. It's almost overwhelming. It was mostly at night, when it was safest," Conrad says.

Blairsville Underground Railroad projects began with the idea of expanding on an historical marker near the intersection of Market and Liberty streets. The marker commemorates an incident in 1858 when Blairsville citizens turned out in force and drove out of town a slave catcher and his accomplice — thwarting their efforts to seize Richard Newman, who had been living in the town for about six years.

The Underground Railroad group has staged past reenactments of the fugitive slave rescue, which has been recognized by the National Park Service.

The walking tour covers a 12-block radius through the streets and buildings of downtown Blairsville. Included are the homes of John Graff, a wealthy businessman who abhorred slavery and whose carriage house contained a safe room, and Lewis Johnston, son of a free black man and slave woman who sheltered Newman and others.

"Chris Catalfamo was the catalyst for this. She came to Blairsville and said, 'Do you realize what you have here?'" Conrad says.

The late Catalfamo , a former St. Vincent College history professor and resident of Indiana, was a reenactor and, Conrad says, "an igniter."

"Chris was always so far ahead of the times," she says.

The interactive exhibit "Day in the Life of an Enslaved Child" was developed by Denise Jennings-Doyle, founding member and vice president of the UGRR committee. A grant from the Pittsburgh 250 project funded by the Sprout Foundation helped with its creation.

"I'll put this up against anything I've ever seen. It's just so well-done. It's so impactful," Conrad says.

Jennings-Doyle, 51, of Blairsville, has a master's degree in adult and community education and often makes historical presentations tailored to specific communities in Western Pennsylvania.

She created the three-hour self-driving tour, which takes motorists to various historical sites throughout Indiana County, most private.

Fascinated by her home county's history, Jennings-Doyle researched child enslavement.

"There is so much research done and focus put on deep cotton South and not enough, in my opinion, on the Appalachian region," she says.

For the "Day in the Life" exhibit, she wrote the grant, did the research, wrote the text and designed the panels.

"I'm very, very proud of that exhibit. It was a lot of work and a ton of research," Jennings-Doyle says.

Indiana County Tourist Bureau and the Historical Society of the Blairsville Area, with which the center works hand-in-hand, also promote the center and the walking/driving tours. Maps are available on the history center and county tourism websites.

Committee member Seth Gibson is a reenactor and participates in cemetery tours.

"We resurrect people buried in our cemetery and tell their stories. We have a Revolutionary War soldier, a Confederate soldier, any number of Civil War veterans," Conrad says.

Gibson and Conrad also dress in period costume and share Blairsville's underground railroad history with patients and staff at Torrance State Hospital in Derry Township.

Conrad has participated in the cemetery tours as well, but finds her niche educating visitors at the history center.

"I prefer being the guide. ... I am just passionate about this," she says.

"I don't think we are the important part of this. I think each one of us thinks the underground railroad history is more important than any individual or particular person that has been involved," Conrad says.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

Blairsville walking/driving tour

1. Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, 214 East Lane

2 and 3. John and Alexander Graff Houses, 195 and 216 S. Liberty St. John Graff was a prominent businessman andunderground railroad conductor. A safe room was constructed in the floor of John's carriage house to shelter escaping slaves.

4. Pennsylvania Historical Fugitive Slave Marker

5. Site of former AME Zion Church, first African church organized in Indiana County.

6. Lewis Johnston Home (reconstructed), N. Spring and W. Campbell streets. Lewis was an active Underground Railroad conductor. Johnston harbored escaped slave Richard Newman while he resided in Blairsville nearly six years.

7. McCune Store, corner of N. Spring and W. Market streets. Pre-Civil War era building with reported ties to the Underground Railroad. "Safe room" in basement was used to harbor escaping slaves, according to oral tradition.

8. Blairsville Cemetery, Old William Penn Highway. Burial place of Underground Railroad figures, along with Civil and Revolutionary War soldiers.

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