A first-of-its kind camp is teaching kids in South Jersey about the Underground Railroad
The Lawnside Historical Society sponsored the more than a dozen young people to visit historic sites and get lessons about crucial figures including Harriet Tubman.
The kids eagerly boarded a yellow school bus for a sightseeing trip into the past — to retrace the history of the Underground Railroad in Lawnside, where enslaved runaways found shelter in the 1800s.
More than a dozen young people have spent the week visiting historic sites and getting lessons about crucial figures, including Harriet Tubman, in the first-of-its-kind free camp sponsored by the Lawnside Historical Society, which seeks to preserve the storied past of the borough of about 3,000. It was offered primarily to fifth through seventh graders.
“I hope students will gain an understanding of how this clandestine network of abolitionists — some of whom were formerly enslaved — risked their lives to help freedom seekers escape bondage,” said Jacqueline Miller Bentley, a retired educator and the camp’s administrator.
The campers arrived daily shortly after 10 a.m. at the Peter Mott House, built around 1845 by Mott, a free man and a preacher who provided refuge for enslaved people who escaped, for touring or two hours of lectures under white tents set up on the lawn.
Some campers said they were learning Black history that has not been taught in school — including the story of Henry Box Brown, an enslaved man who escaped to freedom by having himself shipped in a box to Philadelphia.
“Our school has glossed over the Underground Railroad,” said Katherine Gries, 11, of Haddon Heights. “It’s important to remember the history of people who have been forgotten.”
Located 13 miles southeast of Philadelphia, Lawnside was settled before the Civil War as “Snow Hill,” a haven for free Black people and runaways on land purchased by abolitionists. It later became Lawnside and was incorporated as the first all-Black municipality north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
On Tuesday, the campers visited two other sites in the 1.5-square-mile, historically African American Camden County community listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They also toured the Mott House, a popular museum. The five-day camp wrapped up Friday with a closing ceremony where campers received certificates and made presentations about what they learned.
”I think it’s educational and fun at the same time,” said Arianna Hernandez, 9, of Lawnside. “I made new friends and this keeps me occupied and not just in the house watching TV.”
The first stop was Mount Peace Cemetery, established in 1900 as a private, nonsectarian resting place for Black Civil War veterans, former enslaved people, and those who could not be buried in white-only cemeteries.
It is believed that as many as 125 Civil War veterans are buried at Mount Peace, where families sent their remains because they were not permitted in white cemeteries. But not all of their graves have been located.
Tour guide Yolanda Romero led the group to the grave of John H. Lawson, a Medal of Honor recipient recognized for his bravery during the Civil War. Lawson refused to give up his station aboard the USS Hartford during a fierce battle.
The campers peppered Romero with questions. One commented that the white granite headstone on Lawson’s grave resembled Styrofoam. Romero allowed them to gently press their hands against the stone.
During the brief tour, Romero identified other graves along what is called Soldier’s Row. Veterans of the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and Vietnam also are buried in Mount Peace.
”Who’s that person?” wondered Brian Lawrence, 7, of Pennsauken, pointing to a grave with a toppled-over headstone.
The campers gasped when Romero explained the cemetery’s former owners went bankrupt years ago, leaving volunteers to tend to the 11-acre site. They cut the grass, pick up debris, and clean up after passersby who walk their dogs there, she said. New burials are no longer accepted.
”That’s just disrespectful,” said London Artis, 10, of Blackwood, a rising fifth grader.
The campers boarded the bus and made a short trip to their second stop, Mount Pisgah A.M.E. Church, which was organized in 1792. Ellen Benson, 87, who joined the church as a teenager, met them outside because the church has not resumed in-person services.
”It’s nice to see that you still want to learn,” she told the campers.
The church is where the Rev. Jarena Lee, the widow of the church’s pastor, became the first woman in the A.M.E. domination allowed to preach, Benson said. Bishop Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, had denied her requests for years.
The campers and bus driver Jaconda Kearse were impressed by what they learned about the oldest church in Lawnside and the second-oldest A.M.E. church in New Jersey. It still has an active congregation.
”I learned something today, too. They should have had trips like this for us,” said Kearse, 46, of Camden.
Said Artis: “I feel like it’s an adventure. It’s an experience I needed to learn.”
Audrey Klein, 11, of Haddon Heights, attended the camp with three classmates from the neighboring town. She usually attends art camp.
”It’s very different from what I usually do, but I’m enjoying it a lot,” Klein said. “I’m learning about history I didn’t know.”
Only Hernandez lives in Lawnside, while other campers have close ties to the borough. The historical society, which funded the camp with a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, hopes to expand the camp next year, said president Linda Shockley.
Bentley said she wanted the campers to know about the state’s painful past, too, so for the last stop, the campers visited one of three former slave auction block sites in Camden where historians say more than 800 people were sold. New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery.
“This is history and it’s important for you to know it so that we can respect it and the resilience of the enslaved people who were brought here against their will,” she told them.
The campers spent another day learning about how freedom seekers used code words in hymns to plan their escape. The Rev. Renee McKenzie-Hayward, interim priest of Calvary St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, helped them analyze hidden messages in the Negro spiritual, “Steal Away to Jesus.”
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
The lyrics’ refrain “steal away home” was code for escaping to Canada, while “I ain’t got long to stay here” meant it would be soon time to flee.
The campers also tried their hands at writing messages that enslaved people could have used to secretly communicate.
Rebel Simpkins-Hayward wrote: “That wagon is carrying a load of potatoes.” Translated, the wagon is transporting enslaved people to freedom.
“It’s really cool,” said Ajaiya Quashie, 11, of Somerdale, a rising sixth grader. “I’ve always been passionate about spirituality.”
With McKenzie-Hayward leading them and clapping her hands, the campers stood and sang “Steal Away to Jesus,” prompting Kayden Metzger, 11, of Haddon Heights to quip, “Where’s the remix?” The rising sixth grader said he enjoyed the history lessons.
Asked how the song made him feel, Aasir Redd said: “from the soul.”
For more information about the Lawnside Historical Society visit www.petermotthouse.org or call (856) 546-8850.