VOICES: Historic Edinboro — Home to higher education and corridor to freedom

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, October 14th, 2020 at 9:10 AM

This 2020 election year is a noteworthy time to recall our region’s historical significance, both locally and nationally. During the 1850s, for example, Northwest Pennsylvania impacted economic and social change on a large scale. In nearby Venango County, the nation’s first commercial oil well (1859) drew multitudes seeking the black gold as part of an economic bonanza that altered lifestyles, sometimes in grandeur fashion.

Meanwhile, during the same decade, we look no further than right here in Edinboro to see the area’s impact on education. The Edinboro Academy, founded in 1857, became the first teacher training institution west of the Allegheny Mountains. Although the first female graduates (1862) could not yet cast a vote, the tenacity and persistence of the female suffrage movement would eventually be rewarded in 1920. This year we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote — a major goal was reached but the battle continued as restrictions relevant to minority rights, age, poll taxes, and literacy tests would be later confronted. 

Along with hosting, and for a time, owning the school, the town of Edinboro and its surrounding area played a key role in efforts toward social reform and securing equal rights. Runaway slaves entering into the northwest part of the state were not seeking jobs in the oil fields or to enroll at the academy. These individuals were seeking a desperately cherished goal — freedom. Edinboro offered a link as part of the Underground Railroad network for those seeking refuge from the bonds of slavery. In fact, when you drive or walk north on Erie Street, you’re literally following in the footsteps of the freedom seeking runaways. Various routes existed and, as author William Switala notes in the “Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania,” one of the logical escape routes brought refugees to Cambridge Springs. From there, they continued north through Edinboro, then onward to Erie and eventually Canada. The Underground Railroad operated circa late 18th century through the Civil War years (1861-1865).

In 1857 and further to the west, Illinois lawyer and statesman Abraham Lincoln spoke against the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Dred Scott case that would permit the extension of slavery into the territories. Three years later, in the election of 1860, Lincoln won the presidency with Pennsylvania serving as a key support state. The fugitive slaves themselves could not yet cast a vote in that election; however, the Union’s victory in the Civil War, combined with congressional battles, ended slavery and helped Black people attain citizenship. In 1870, African-American men achieved the right to vote with ratification of the 15th Amendment. In 2020, we commemorate the 150th anniversary granting that right. 

Individuals associated with virtuous endeavors often achieved prominence and publicity while others remained behind the scenes. Lesser known but nevertheless admirable for their efforts were the unsung heroes who assisted runaways escaping from bondage. Particularly risky was the time frame of the 1850s when a citizen could be fined or jailed for aiding runaway slaves. Those in the Edinboro area who empathized with the fugitives provided temporary shelter and direction. Depending on circumstances, they may have offered food and additional clothing for the arduous journey to freedom.

Later, among those who attained public prominence was Edinboro State Normal School (formerly Edinboro Academy and now Edinboro University) graduate Alice Bentley. Bentley not only gained the right to vote in 1920, but was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1922 and served as Speaker pro tempore from 1923-1928. Whether achieving fame or remaining behind the scenes, the Edinboro area witnessed those who served society with compassion, dignity, and benevolence.

As the 20th century progressed, Congress further modified voting rights to help Native Americans (Snyder Act — 1924) and all minorities with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965. Adjusting amendments and legislation might be viewed as an ongoing process. In the bigger picture, voting is part of that process. We might not know until Nov. 3, but if trends continue from 2016, the college age voter turnout will continue to rise in 2020.

Whether you decide to cast a ballot in person or through the mail, recall the hardships, struggles, and our own region’s historic contributions toward social change. The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who spoke in Erie in 1858, never let the extreme difficulties he encountered act as a deterrent toward seeking the vote. The civil rights activist campaigned fervently for the 15th Amendment, ultimately experiencing the right to cast a ballot — just as you’re entitled to this Nov. 3.

Michael D. Sherbon is an Edinboro University graduate, educator, researcher, and former associate archivist at the PA Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg.

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