Richard Henderson

Richard Henderson has been credited as the first permanent black resident of Meadville. He had escaped from slavery at the age of 15 with his two brothers and a sister. He is estimated to have harbored some 500 runaway slaves prior to the Civil War.

If stopped at the corner of Liberty and Arch streets in downtown Meadville, one might not even consider the historical significance of the spot, but a historical marker gives a glimpse into a life of someone who might otherwise remain unknown but whose actions likely changed the lives of many.

While names such as Harriet Tubman and John Brown have gone down in the history of this nation's struggle against slavery and the hidden work of the Underground Railroad, there are countless other names attached to individuals who also risked their own lives in the effort to help people make their way to freedom.

The marker near the Bethel A.M.E. church, 961 Liberty St., Meadville, honors the life and contributions of Richard Henderson. Various accounts note that Henderson was the first black permanent resident of Meadville. The historical marker was erected in 1980.

“Born a slave in Maryland in 1801, he escaped as a boy and about 1824 came to Meadville. A barber, he was long active in the Underground Railroad. His Arch Street house, since torn down, is estimated to have harbored some 500 runaway slaves prior to the Civil War,” the marker reads.

According to the website, at the time of the marker's approval, it was only the third time a black Pennsylvanian had been honored with one. Henderson is also said to have helped to form the church and served as a trustee there.

He was married twice and raised two sons with his second wife, Mary. He died in 1880, and a gravestone at Greendale Cemetery in Meadville memorializes a Richard Henderson, husband to Mary, corresponding with that year.

Meadville was believed to be a key location along three Underground Railroad routes, according to the book, “Places of the Underground Railroad A Geographical Guide,” by Tom Calenco and Cynthia Vogel.

One was from the East going from Bellefonte to Brookville, Franklin, Meadville, Corry and Waterford, from where people then headed to Erie across Lake Erie.

A route north from Virginia went through Pittsburgh, Beaver Falls, New Castle, Mercer and Meadville to Waterford.

A third route included Cooperstown, Townville, Meadville and Erie. The fact that Meadville had a community of free blacks helped with the hiding of individuals.

Other area residents and locations are believed to have been Underground Railroad helpers and stops.

Some of these were the Unitarian Seminary located on Chestnut Street in Meadville, and businessman Harm Jan Huidekoper, who would give money to fugitives as they passed through Meadville, according to The Crawford Messenger, a publication of the Crawford County Historical Society.

Other families believed to have aided fugitives were the Randolphs, Bartons, Powells and Bishops, and locations included hotels on Water Street, the Bagley home on Chestnut Street, a barn along the Diamond and a residence on Main Street, according the Crawford Messenger. Linesville is also believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad at the home of Moses Bishop.

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