Overlooked no more: Richard Henderson, the former slave who provided refuge for 500 fugitives on the Underground Railroad 

Stephen Nartey February 17, 2023
Richard Henderson/Photo credit: Historical Marker Database

Richard Henderson came to Meadville in 1824, becoming the first permanent Black resident there. He had escaped from his owner at the age of 15. He did not take this dangerous expedition alone. He escaped slavery with his two brothers and a sister.

However, he lost his sister to pneumonia while on the journey, according to Explore Pennsylvania History. He decided to start his life in Meadville with his brother, Robert, whom he established a barbering salon with. His other brother headed to Canada where he eked out a living. There is little information on what he was involved in while in Canada.

Henderson was very interested in using his local network to assist other people of African descent who were running away from slavery. He was actively involved in the Underground Railroad network and at some point became the leader of the local branch in his county from 1830 to 1860.

In their book “Places of the Underground Railroad A Geographical Guide”, Tom Calenco and Cynthia Vogel described how Meadville was a major location along three Underground Railroad routes. One of the routes was from the East going from Bellefonte to Brookville, Franklin, Meadville, Corry and Waterford. Fugitives will then head to Erie across Lake Erie.

There was also the northern route from Virginia that went through Pittsburgh, Beaver Falls, New Castle, Mercer and Meadville to Waterford. Cooperstown, Townville, Meadville and Erie were part of the third route.

Local settlers along these routes are known to have provided support to the runaways and provided them with temporary shelters. Unitarian Seminary was one of the notable stopovers where the fugitives camped. Others were also provided financial assistance by businessman Harm Jan Huidekoper as they journeyed through Meadville.

Some key families known to have assisted the fugitives on their way to freedom include the Randolphs, Bartons, and Powells, according to The Meadville Tribune. Some of the stopover homes were on Chestnut Street, Main Street, and Linesville.

Henderson became a local legend to runaways going through Meadville. He is acclaimed for providing refuge for 500 fugitive slaves before the Civil War. He put them in his Arch Street house. Henderson also assisted in the construction of the Bethel A.M.E Church in 1849 where he served as one of its trustees. A historical marker has been erected near the church in Meadville in recognition of the bold step he took to protect runaway slaves.

In 1980 when the historical marker was mounted, it was the third state historical marker erected in honor of a Black person in Pennsylvania.

Henderson was born a slave in 1801 in Maryland. He is known to have married twice, having two children with the second. He passed away in 1880 and was buried at Greendale Cemetery in Meadville. A gravestone has been erected at the cemetery to honor his memory.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 17, 2023


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