In towns and rural areas of Pennsylvania, a team of eight researchers is working on what organizers describe as an unprecedented effort to chronicle the history of African Americans in the state.

"What we are looking at specifically is black history in communities across the state - how black communities developed, where they were located, who comprised black communities and what they looked like," said Ken Wolensky, a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

The commission is using a $142,000 grant from the National Park Service and its own matching funds to tell the stories of black Pennsylvanians since the 1770s.

"We're the first state in the nation to undertake this kind of a comprehensive survey and analysis of black history," Wolensky said. "Pennsylvania has taken a leadership role here in looking at this history and evaluating its significance."

The commission is working with the African American Museum in Philadelphia on the research, which is focusing on Coatesville and nine other communities. The project began in March and is to be completed in 2010.

Besides Coatesville, the communities are Bedford, Bedford County; Greensburg, Westmoreland County; Indiana, Indiana County; Meadville, Crawford County; Mount Union, Huntingdon County; Stroudsburg, Monroe County; Washington, Washington County; Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County; and Williamsport, Lycoming County.

"In these communities, there were significant black populations that, to a larger extent, were not well understood," Wolensky said, explaining why Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were not included. "Part of what we're trying to do is to have them understood a little better."

Romona Riscoe Benson, president and chief executive of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, said she was excited about its participation.

"I think it's an important project for this museum to work on," she said. "We certainly look forward to the products that can come out of this project."

Among the results that officials expect from the project are walking and driving tours devoted to black history, an oral-history database, a Web site that details the study's findings, and nominations for the National Register of Historic Places.

"The thinking behind what we can do with this information is limitless," Benson said.

The first communities studied were Coatesville and Mount Union, officials said. Researchers are now in Stroudsburg.

The work has produced new evidence of Pennsylvania's role in the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network used to help runaway slaves from the South find freedom in the North, Wolensky said.

"In Pennsylvania, even rural areas played a significant role in the Underground Railroad," he said. "Where we find evidence of it, we are looking at the Underground Railroad."

Ivan Henderson, a project coordinator for the African American Museum in Philadelphia and a member of the racially integrated research team, said black residents of rural Pennsylvania had been drawn to the coal, iron and silica mines throughout the state.

"We're finding a rich history of Underground Railroad activity . . . around those areas," he said.

The work usually begins with queries of local museums and historical societies, African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist churches, and Masonic halls, then progresses to interviews of older residents, Henderson and other researchers said.

"We're collecting genealogy information and oral histories, and we're also detailing how to find hidden histories in cemeteries, destroyed homes, and things like that," Henderson said.

Benson said communities had welcomed the researchers. "One thing that we find is that everyone wants to have their community studied," she said.

Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.