A place where freedom and forgiveness began

Christiana: Descendants of participants in one of the country's most violent confrontations over slavery come together in atmosphere of remembrance, regret and reconciliation.

September 11, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHRISTIANA, Pa. - On a map, this small, nondescript town of 400 families, surrounded on all sides by Amish farm country, is hard to find.

Yet banners on Christiana telephone poles wave proudly "Freedom Began Here!" And famous abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass once wrote, "The battle for liberty began in Christiana."

It was here 150 years ago today that one of the most violent confrontations over slavery in antebellum America took place: the Christiana Riot, where a Baltimore County slaveowner in pursuit of his runaway slaves was killed, his body pelted with bullets and hacked with corn knives.

And it was here in Christiana last weekend that descendants of the key players in this historical conflict - the slaves, the slaveowners and the Quaker townspeople - met each other for the first time, in an atmosphere of remembrance, regret and reconciliation.

"All is forgiven by now," said Doreen Johnston Shadd, a great-great-granddaughter of Abraham Johnson, a fugitive who fled with the Maryland slaves. "Each in his own right was doing what he thought was right then."

"It was only an accident of blood that I'm here," said Karen Riddlebaugh Hunter, whose great-great-great-uncle was the brother of Edward Gorsuch, the slaveowner. "But I'm certainly glad I made the trip. It makes me feel like a very small cog in a very big thing that's bigger than my family."

The events surrounding the riot certainly are bigger than just the Gorsuch family folklore.

Historians have described the Christiana Riot as the unofficial beginning of the Civil War. And although it is little-known, each year commemorative ceremonies get bigger and bigger, drawing in more people interested in the historical roots of the conflict.

While last weekend's remembrance activities in the Lancaster County town remained personal for the families whose forebears were participants, the sense of reconciliation was broader.

"It is so beautiful to see these people come together, moving past the pain," said Nancy Hess, the weekend's event coordinator. "Our past is ugly for all of us. But today we go to a higher level. Today, we make Christiana a place not only where freedom began, but also where forgiveness began."

Changing landscape

The Gunpowder Falls River winds through the land that once belonged to Gorsuch and his brother, Thomas Talbot Gorsuch. It sits still in wide, flat patches and slips skinny in shallow ravines, along and around the cornfields, the hills and the modern houses that are slowly being built closer and closer together.

The landscape is changing, to be sure, from the days when the Gorsuch brothers lived off the wheat grown tall with slave labor, but the rippling river still carries the tale of the riot.

Edward Gorsuch, by many accounts, was a "good" slaveowner. But despite his relative generosity, four of his slaves escaped with a free black man named Abraham Johnson - up along the Gunpowder, through the hills into free Pennsylvania, where they managed to avoid slave catchers for about two years.

With passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, mandating the return of runaway slaves, Gorsuch was determined to retrieve his slaves. He and a party of relatives traveled to Pennsylvania and obtained warrants and a marshal's blessing to capture them and return to Baltimore County.

On Sept. 11, 1851, he was met by the fury of townsmen and former Maryland slave William Parker, who was boarding Johnson and three of Gorsuch's slaves in a rented wooden house.

A gunfight ended with Gorsuch dead, his son Dickinson critically wounded, Maryland whites running for their lives, and Parker, Johnson and other escaped slaves fleeing to Canada.

In the treason trials that followed the rebellion, not one of the 38 men tried was found guilty, delivering a crushing blow to the newborn Fugitive Slave Act.

Ten years later, the country was at war with itself.

Whites throughout the country took notice that a white man had died in a bloody confrontation and that no one was punished. Many were enraged by what they considered an injustice, especially considering Gorsuch's relatively prominent social position.

"People in the 1850s would have known who the Gorsuches were," said Joseph L. Arnold, a history professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "This was not just some ordinary farmer going up trying to retrieve his slaves. This was an important man."

Still, the events in Christiana never achieved the status that John Brown's Raid in Harpers Ferry holds today.

Some say the country wasn't ready until recently to promote an event sparked by black insurrection against whites and ending in a white landowner's unavenged death. And others note that the blacks involved held tightly to the story so as not to tip off kidnapping slave catchers to their whereabouts in Canada and other locations.

Frank Parker, the 39-year-old great-grandson of William Parker, said his father, Frank Sr., never mentioned the story, even though he lived to age 98.

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