"Freedom" on an Iron Plantation
Was Pennsylvania's Hopewell Furnace Ahead of its Time?
By Darrin Youker | Online Only | Feb. 8, 2010
For a three-year period in the early 19th century, Job Lee held the third-highest position at Hopewell Furnace in southeast Pennsylvania. His job was to keep the massive furnace going by adding charcoal, limestone, and iron ore—the lifeblood of the operation. And as a reward, he got to stay in the ironmaster's mansion.
What's unique about Lee, however, is that Job was an African American, holding an important position long before the emancipation of slaves.
Recent research at Hopewell, which operated from 1771-1883 and is now a National Historic Site, is challenging some of the long-held notions about African American workers in the 19th century. Researchers now believe that Hopewell, located outside Birdsboro, Pa., also functioned as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
When the National Park Service took control of Hopewell in the 1930s, it was a dilapidated, overgrown and rundown ruin. But inside some of the weather-worn buildings on the 848-acre site were the ledgers and business records of the furnace, dating back nearly to its opening.
Those records reveal that some workers during the early 19th century would stay at Hopewell for only a few months at a time. Often they were listed in the ledgers as "Black Luce" or simply "X," according to Frances Delmar, chief of interpretation of the historic site. That, and other evidence, suggests that some escaped slaves were working at Hopewell to earn money for their journey north, Delmar says. Their stay at the Underground Railroad stop was anything but restful.
"We can't picture 19th-century Hopewell as a utopia," Delmar says. "Living and working at Hopewell was good work, but it was hard, dirty work."
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
During the early 19th century, several black women were employed as maids inside the iron master's house, Delmar says. Many stayed only a few months, again suggesting that they were freedom seekers.
And in all likelihood, the owners of Hopewell ignored the fact that these women were breaking the fugitive slave law, Delmar says.
That position was not uncommon for people living in Pennsylvania during the abolitionist movement, says William Switala, a professor at Duquesne University who has written three books on the Underground Railroad. Switala says that Hopewell, and an African American community near the iron works, played a key role in the Underground Railroad movement in Pennsylvania. But furnace founder Mark Bird, who was the largest slave owner in Berks County, with 14 adult slaves, was not deliberately participating in the anti-slavery movement.
"I haven't come across anything that suggests the owners of Hopewell were active [in the Underground Railroad]," Switala says. "They must of have turned a blind eye to it. A number of Pennsylvanians had an attitude similar to 'don't ask, don't tell.'"
Freedom seekers traveled around 10 miles a day, mostly under the cover of darkness, so they normally sought places where they knew they could find help, Switala says. There is no way of knowing for certain how many escaped slaves passed through Pennsylvania, he says. Many stayed, gravitating to established black communities in large cities.
At Hopewell, one of the notable freedom seekers who stayed behind was Isaac Cole. He likely escaped from Maryland sometime before the 1860s and worked at Hopewell. At age 40, Cole enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Civil War. Later a landowner, Cole was also one of the founding members of the Six Penny Creek Community and the Mt. Frisby AME Church. Both the all-black community and church were known stops on the Underground Railroad, just a few miles from Hopewell, Delmar says.
"I am certain the settlement was constructed to provide a haven for runaway slaves," Delmar says. "It was set back in the woods, with only one road in. The whole community was involved in the abolitionist movement." (Today the church, and cemetery where Cole is buried, still stands on land now owned by his descendents.)
Pennsylvania's First Integrated School
Historians once believed that slaves simply dug ditches and performed other menial tasks at Hopewell, Delmar says. But considering that Africa had a history of ironmaking dating back more than 2,000 years, it's more likely that Bird's slaves operated the iron furnace, she says. Workers, regardless of race, received equal pay, and people like Job Lee were promoted at Hopewell.
As unlikely as it sounds for a business run by a slaveowner, integration came early to Hopewell. In 1806, the iron master built a one-room school house, open to both black and white children, Delmar says. Records suggest that children played together outside of school, illustrating a lack of segregation at the iron plantation, she says. "We believe we have the first integrated school in Pennsylvania," she says.
For the ironmaster, the decision to integrate was not likely born from some moral belief, but simply a business decision, Delmar says.
"The owners of Hopewell were hard-headed businessmen," Delmar says. "They simply had jobs to fill and needed workers."
Darrin Youker is a writer living in Reading, Pa.
Darrin Youker is a writer living in Reading, Pa.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.