As the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaches, we're being offered all kinds of ways to imagine how freedom for enslaved African Americans materialized.

There's Hollywood's version, and others: From the messy congressional debates and cutthroat presidential tactics depicted in the awe-inspiring film Lincoln, to unapologetic freedom fighters killing their way to liberation in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, and determined emancipators agitating, agitating, agitating in PBS's forthcoming documentary series The Abolitionists.

Through it all, we've learned that freedom was never free. Elusive and sacrificial, yes. But free? Uh-uh.

If there's one thing the fight to establish a slave memorial on Independence Mall taught us, it's that all Americans deserve honor and dignity, particularly the ones who had no voice.

That is what the Quakers of the Upper Dublin Meeting have tried to do by applying for a Pennsylvania historical marker to designate the farm of Quaker abolitionists Thomas and Hannah Atkinson as a stop on the Underground Railroad, along with the adjoining Upper Dublin Meeting graveyard, where fugitive slaves - nobody knows how many - rest in unmarked graves.

That's because the Underground Railroad was, by definition, a secret operation, and slaves were just that - slaves.

"When I learned that [slaves] were buried out there, I almost fell out of my chair," says Avis Wanda McClinton, 54, the only African American member of the Upper Dublin Meeting. "I know how important our ancestors are. Once I found out this was the real deal, I knew I had to do something."

"We knew African Americans were buried there," says Pamela Yaller, 47, a direct descendant of the Atkinsons, "but Avis brought it all to light."

'Inner compass'

"The inner compass that directs the soul toward justice has ossified in white people."


Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Pa. congressman and staunch abolitionist, in "Lincoln"

David Bartholomew, 81, great-great-grandson of Hannah and Thomas Atkinson, acknowledges he's known that enslaved blacks were buried in the graveyard he's looked after for 62 years. But despite his proud Quaker heritage and what his forefathers stood for, he never thought to find out more about the slaves, nor did he think about honoring them somehow.

"We didn't know much about it at the time," Bartholomew says. "In my day, blacks were still sitting at the back of buses, and I didn't think there was anything wrong with that. . . . I look back and feel guilty about it now."

But Bartholomew, the family historian, knew a lot about Thomas and Hannah settling in an Upper Dublin farmhouse in 1849 (now the Upper Dublin School District's administrative offices) and turning it into an Underground Railroad stop to protect escaped slaves on their treacherous journey to Canada and freedom.

"They told [fellow Quakers] they wanted to have a stop for the Underground Railroad," Bartholomew says. "Everybody was for it, but nobody wanted the responsibility."

It took a working moral compass and a whole lot of courage to stand on the right side of history then. Thomas and Hannah Atkinson were the among few who did.

And McClinton's efforts made folks understand that enslaved African Americans, no matter how invisible, deserve honor, too.

"By them resisting slavery, they gave me the option to say, 'No,' " says McClinton, who plans a memorial service for the enslaved in February. "I feel like God gave me this task and I'm going to do it the best way I know how."