Underground Railroad 'safe house' represents struggle against slavery

Even though poisonous chemicals will keep the 200-year-old Rockdale home shuttered forever, its owners are determined to preserve it

  • Shirley and Jeff Supik, owners and 21st century station masters of The Emmart-Pierpont Safe House, a former runaway slaves safe house on the Underground Railroad, held Harriet Tubman Day at the house's current site. The house, pictured, was moved to the current site at 3523 North Rolling Road in 1893.
Shirley and Jeff Supik, owners and 21st century station masters… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
April 02, 2011|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

Maia Woods had long wondered about the strange-looking house on Rolling Road in Rockdale, the one that sits off Liberty Road, boarded up and neglected.

On Saturday, she found out about its years as a station on the Underground Railroad, how it's been moved twice in its 200-plus-year history by family members well aware of its historical importance, and how it was bought by a couple 30 years ago determined to see it preserved — even though it's been so contaminated by pesticides that no one will ever be able to live in it again.

Woods came away impressed. "It's phenomenal that it's right here," the 39-year-old social worker said from the backyard of the Emmart-Pierpont Safe House, site of a two-hour commemoration of Harriet Tubman Day in Baltimore County. "It's too bad it isn't a little more well-known."

The Maryland-born Tubman, perhaps the Underground Railroad's most famous conductor, never actually visited the house while shepherding slaves to their freedom in the North in the days before the Civil War. But plenty of other 19th-century freedom fighters did pass through what is the only documented safe house in the county.

State legislators recently considered a proposal to place a statue of Tubman in the U.S. Capitol, where it would replace one of John Hanson, first president of the Continental Congress under the 1781 Articles of Confederation. That proposal seems dead for now, although some legislators — including Delegate Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore County Democrat who was in the audience Saturday — have promised to keep pushing for it.

The Emmart-Pierpont House, meanwhile, remains as a scarred artifact of the anti-slavery movement it helped embolden. The house dates to 1791, says Jeff Supik, 58, who bought the property with his wife, Shirley, in 1980. It originally stood about four miles west, on property near the current Emmarts United Methodist Church, which dates to 1855. Farmer Caleb Emmart, who donated the property for the church, encouraged runaway slaves seeking their freedom to use his house.

The Supiks' ownership of the house has been both a curse and a blessing. They were forced to move out in 1992, Jeff Supik said, after it was discovered that pesticide treatments had left nearly toxic levels of chemicals behind. No one has been able to enter the house since, much less live in it. They now live in a home he built on property behind the house, with no hope of ever again living in the historic structure.

"We've been told that, 99 years from now, it will be just as contaminated," Jeff Supik said.

But the Supiks are determined that the house be preserved. When Baltimore County officials ordered that it be torn down in 2005 and the site cleaned up, Jeff Supik said, protests from the community convinced them to reconsider. It has since been declared a county historic site.

Shirley Supik, 64, spoke emotionally of the house's history, describing how Caleb Emmart and his family helped slaves escape northward. In the basement, she said, was a brick with a circle-and-cross design etched onto it — a symbol that helped runaway slaves recognize the house. The Supiks have preserved the brick in their home.

Even years after the Civil War resolved the debate over slavery, the Emmart family recognized the house's significance. Rather than see it torn down, family members moved it, first to a site some six miles east of Liberty Road, and then, in 1893, to its present location. The Supiks bought the house from Robert Pierpont, the last Emmart descendant to live in it.

If they have anything to say about it, the Supiks promise, the house will continue to quietly tell its story to succeeding generations of visitors — even if all they can do is look at it from the outside.

"When you buy a house that was used to house runaway slaves," Jeff Supik said, "you have a responsibility."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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