Just Over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad
By William C. Kashatus
119 pages. Photographs, maps, bibliography, notes, appendices, index
ISBN: 0-929706-17-X $25.00 soft cover 2002
Just Over the Line focuses on the crucial role Chester County, Pennsylvania, played in the drama of the Underground Railroad during the years before the Civil War. The “Line” refers to the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary between the free state of Pennsylvania and slave-holding Maryland. Chester County, just over the Mason-Dixon Line, was home to both Quakers and free blacks. Their common commitment to abolitionism allowed the two communities to transcend religious and racial barriers in order to help runaway slaves in their flight to freedom.
On the other hand, not all Quakers agreed to participate in the anti-slavery movement, let alone the Underground Railroad. There were also others who were willing assist slave-catchers or kidnap free blacks and sell them into bondage for the bounty they would receive. Thus, Chester County was not a safe Northern haven for fugitives, but rather a dangerous battleground between pro- and anti-slavery elements.
Kashatus’ spirited narrative recounts the role of important Underground Railroad agents such as Thomas Garrett and William Still, as well as those of unsung heroes and heroines. Many of these were humble country folk such as John and Hannah Cox, whose farm near Kennett was an important station.
Just Over the Line also emphasizes the participation of the escaped slaves and kidnapped free blacks in their own liberation. Many fugitives were young and hardy, praised at the time for their exceptional intelligence and courage, rather than submissive victims dependent on the help of sympathetic whites. This is local history that was national in its impact.
“Kashatus could scarcely have done a better job of sorting out the historical wheat from the chaff of hopeful speculation and unintended trivialization that now surround the Underground Railroad. Anyone who reads Just Over the Line will come away impressed with just how serious a challenge fugitive slaves posed to northern society and how varied the responses were.” – The Journal of American History
“Just Over the Line is a model of historical writing, which can be read to advantage by the general reader and scholar alike.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer