WAVERLY TWP. — The accounts of Waverly’s “Colored Hill” are sketchy, but there is no doubt it existed. Home to a settlement of fugitive slaves in the 1800s, the township played a role in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.
The truth is complicated and author Jim Remsen set out on a journey to discover what could be found about these early settlers in Northeast Pennsylvania. Remsen’s book, “Embattled Freedom,” uncovers the history of black civil war soldiers and the world they encountered in the Abingtons.
Remsen’s love of history came from his father, who was an avid historian. The author grew up in Waverly, and is a 1967 graduate of Abington Heights. He lives with his wife of 40 years, Harriet, on the edge of Philadelphia.
The religion editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer for many years, Remsen found time in retirement to pursue his love of history. While on a road trip he discovered pieces of Pennsylvania history that had been under-taught and largely forgotten. Remsen dived into research; his years of journalistic writing gave him the tools he needed. His historical novel, “Visions of Teaoga” was published in 2014.
Remsen’s latest book, “Embattled Freedom,” published by Sunbury Press and released earlier this year, is historical nonfiction.
“It’s crisply written,” Remsen said. “It’s a page-turner that walks you through state history during the 1800s. You follow along with black fugitive slaves and their experience, but you’re learning about white attitudes, white politics and white culture of the day that they were thrown into.”
A grant from the Willary Foundation, set up by the children of Governor William and Mary Scranton, helped fund the completion of Remsen’s research.
Remsen’s journey to find the truth took him to historical societies, the national historical archives in Washington, D.C., battlefields in the south and locations throughout Pennsylvania.
The book covers the Underground Railroad and the escape to freedom, as well as the involvement of black Americans in the Civil War and beyond.
“Embattled Freedom” shows how and where the movement happened in the Abingtons. Remsen brings to light a sad time in our nation’s history where an ordering of the races was rampant and overt.
“I think people need to know how compelling and prevailing it really was at that time, and not put a glow on our history. Racism was being peddled far and wide back then ... It’s important to tell people who live in the Abingtons, you weren’t on the sidelines of history.”
On Oct. 14, Remsen will give a talk at the Waverly United Methodist Church.
“I learned just how involved in the anti-slavery movement that congregation was,” Remsen shared. “The special thing about the church, is that it was my church, but it also has a great history. One of the black soldiers that I chronicle in the book, and the founding father of Waverly’s little black settlement at the top of the hill on Carbondale Road, was a fugitive who came through and stayed. His name was George Keys. Others got off the trail and stayed alongside this fellow as well. He became a Civil War soldier and one of his sons joined him as a Civil War soldier. George Keys Sr. is buried right behind the Methodist Church.
“That cemetery was a short cut for me to the grade school at the bottom of the hill. There was this grave of George Keys. I never knew anything about it when I was a kid, but now it’s one of the men I have been most interested in as I researched. And here he is buried there.
“The story is that George Keys was actually taken in by that church. A white congregation back in the 1840s took him in as a worshipping participant. When he married a bit later, the pastor of that church officiated his wedding, which was no small thing.”
Remsen said Waverly was also a complicated place in the 1800s. There were prominent Waverly residents like Andrew Bedford who introduced a resolution that only white men could vote. Early black residents faced opposition by some, and a helping hand from others.
George Keys was helped by an early abolitionist named Rodman Sisson, of LaPlume. Sisson later moved to Waverly and lived out his life there. After Remsen dove into his research he discovered that the house Sisson lived in was Remsen’s boyhood home. The likelihood that fugitive slaves sought protection in the home he was raised in, impacted Remsen deeply.
“It was pretty powerful to learn and I wish my dad could have known that,” Remsen shared. “It’s not the reason I wrote the book, I only learned it along the way. It’s not my story, but theirs. Finding out those things is another reason why my appearance at the church and coming to Waverly is so exciting for me.”
Jim Remsen will give a talk Sunday, Oct. 14 at 3 p.m. at the Waverly United Methodist Church. His latest book, “Embattled Freedom,” will be available for purchase, and refreshments will follow.
To read more about the author and his work, visit jimremsen.com.