In the midwinter of 1867, amid the gloom of a shanty home on the edge of a northeastern Pennsylvania village, night has fallen and the town doctor has departed. From the back room come moans and a fetid odor. A middle-aged black man stares up from the bedding and soaked rags. Pus oozes from his hip, where a Confederate minié ball tore into him two and a half years earlier. The unhealed wound brought on gradual, creeping septic shock. His wife and sons administer water and prayers, but by daybreak the man, George Keys, will be dead, released finally from his sufferings.
This slice of 19th-century American life could be fictional, but it’s not. George Keys and a dozen of his comrades were former slaves or sons of slaves living in my old hometown—the abolitionist hamlet of Waverly, Pennsylvania, just north of Scranton. In 1863, Keys and ten others decided to leave their safe haven to enlist in the newly formed U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army. Throwing themselves back South, and very much into harm’s way, they met various devastations. Only three returned unscathed.
As a Baby Boomer in genteel, lily-white Waverly, I knew nothing about the black soldiers of my town. No one else did, either. We knew a few tidbits about the area’s past as a stop on the Underground Railroad. A friend’s home had a compartment that was said to be a hidey-hole for fugitive slaves. On the way to the swimming pond, we’d bike past the row of small frame houses “where the negroes used to live.” I remember reading a 1954 folk history of Waverly that included a chapter on the shanty settlement, known unfortunately as Darkie Hill, that existed from the 1840s until the 1920s. It gave us a vague pride to know the town had taken in poor wayfarers, but no one seemed to give it much thought, or to imagine that it might offer up a teaching moment for us kids.
A year or so ago I decided to circle back to Waverly after decades away to pursue my post-career interest in telling true American tales that seem to me under-told. My 2014 historical novel, Visions of Teaoga, takes a close look at how the underdog Indians lost their land in Pennsylvania. Completing that work, and sensing another piece of unappreciated, underdog history waiting right in my old backyard, I could not resist. Little did I know where the trail would lead and how George Keys’s story, in particular, would grip me.
Some local tales about the Underground Railroad, the old town history chronicle, and a few other relevant books and booklets got me on my way. The internet yielded county history tomes and some 19th-century newspaper articles. The county historical society shared period diaries, journals, and maps. I talked to local historians, history buffs, and genealogists, black and white. One fellow gave me a packet of old-timers’ recollections from the 1950s. Some of its stories were documented while others seemed dubious lore. From those sources and census records I compiled a database of Darkie Hill residents and of their individual white supporters from 1850 through 1930. No one had ever done it, and it seemed a good way to get my arms around the topic.
The census confirmed that Waverly truly must have felt like safe ground. To my surprise, the refugees provided census-takers with their names and Southern birthplaces even in 1850 and 1860, when the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Supreme Court’s upholding of it in Dred Scott, put them at real risk of capture. Over the decades, the colony’s population grew; my database soon topped 300 souls. Their village patrons, driven by Christian zeal, provided jobs and plots to build homes. They saw to it that the former slaves’ children were educated in the community’s schools. Whereas the early waves of fugitive adults recorded that they could not read or write, their children and grandchildren were listed as enrolled in school, and on a path to literacy that had been forbidden on the plantation. Though most of the adults’ occupations remained humble (laborer, farmhand, laundress) the value of their property rose over the years, and many moved from renting to owning.
Some discoveries really hit home. An 1873 map of Waverly and environs showed that some of the outlying fields and orchards where the fugitives labored were the same fields I’d traipsed across and probably “died” in while playing soldier as a boy. Those blissful early years of pretending nurtured my imagination back then; now in the same place the black field hands of old were drifting into my mindscape. Just as I would later imagine myself communing with George Keys on his deathbed, I let myself perch in an apple tree and watch old Lott Norris lay the stone wall that became my youthful sniper’s nest and strapping Wesley Baptiste bale hay in my future battlefield.
It is thanks to the maps that Keys, believed to be Waverly’s first fugitive settler, came to have a special place in my heart. The story goes that one of the area’s leading abolitionists saved Keys from slave-catchers in the early 1840s—and I turned up a town map showing that this white savior later moved into my own boyhood house. I also determined that Keys is buried in the little churchyard that was on my shortcut to grade school, meaning that I probably tramped near or even over his grave countless times as a boy.
As I sorted through the sprawl of information I was assembling, I was struck by the references to the settlement’s Civil War soldiers. Names were listed, but little else. Why? These brave men had voluntarily returned to the wolf’s lair. What happened to them? It seemed no one had delved into their stories. With the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War underway, the time seemed right to give them some overdue tribute.
I compiled the men’s names from the old recollections and, through the power of today’s internet, found their military muster papers. Most of the men trained in a blacks-only army camp outside Philadelphia, then were sorted into infantry regiments and shipped South. The paperwork mentioned places I’d heard of—Petersburg, Fort Wagner, Fortress Monroe—and some I hadn’t. The notations were sketchy. But then, in a book about the U.S. Colored Troops, I read how black soldiers’ postwar pension files tend to be particularly extensive. The files are viewable, however, only in their original folders at the National Archives in Washington. Off I went on what proved to be two breakthrough trips.
The men’s manila folders probably hadn’t been touched in a century, and opening them opened me to their world of pain: gunshots, malaria, shell concussions, hernias, dysentery. There were affidavits about chronic agonies, disfigurements, futile efforts to return to farm work. Repeatedly, Waverly’s leading citizens vouched for the men’s disabilities and upheld their good character. The disability claims often led to paltry pensions, and eventually even paltrier widow’s pension claims. More affidavits attested to the widows’ impoverished states and to Waverly’s continuing assistance.
Dizzy with all this new information, I persuaded the county historical society to host a public talk where I could report the newfound details to the town. So there I was one Sunday last September, speaking to a crowded gymnasium in the Waverly community center. For an hour I talked about the social conditions the men would have experienced in Waverly and elsewhere before, during, and after the Civil War. I spoke about the abolitionists’ faith-based and enduring patronage, and about the Southern sympathizers, known as Copperheads, who agitated nearby. I talked about the growth and dissolution of Darkie Hill as its later generations sought their fortunes elsewhere. Mostly I focused on the small group of soldiers. I told their stories, one by one, and showed photos of their headstones. People were surprised to learn that most lie unheralded in Waverly’s own two cemeteries.
I spoke of how two of the soldiers were wounded in an assault at Petersburg so celebrated that a painting of it hangs at West Point and was chosen for a Sesquicentennial U.S. stamp, and of how their regiment, the 22nd U.S.C.T., was selected to march in Lincoln’s funeral cortège. I recounted the story of the Waverly teenager mortally wounded in action at Petersburg who was granted his wish to go home to die. “He laid his head in his mother’s arms and stepped into the chariot which bore him to the skies”, young Francis Asbury Johnson’s obituary read. “He sleeps in Jesus, beloved and mourned by many friends.” My voice caught as I recited the words, as soft gasps ascended from the audience.
But there were some things I didn’t share. I didn’t tell them how much the men had gotten under my skin. I didn’t talk about my fantasy wanderings with the field hands, or how I’d lie in bed imagining the fear and discomfort the infantrymen endured. Nor did I share how the doctor’s report on George Key’s gruesome wound—leaking pus and pieces of bone for months—made me want to reach out and mop his brow. I didn’t want to seem obsessed, so I kept all that to myself.
Beyond that, I didn’t challenge the audience as I might have. I said nothing about the casual racist comments I’d heard over the years growing up in Waverly. I didn’t tell them that a forebear of one of the town’s leading families was a slave-holding plantation owner in Haiti who had to flee the 1791 slave revolution there. Nor did I remind them that the Waverly Men’s Club put on annual minstrel shows during my boyhood, with its members sporting blackface. I could have gotten into that and more, but what right did I, a willing exile from Waverly, have to ambush folks whom I barely knew? So I just urged them visit the soldiers’ graves to pay their respects, and to consider whether they might have stood up for the fugitives, too, had they been put to that toughest of yesteryear’s tests.
People came up afterwards to shower me with gratitude. Some urged me to push on toward a book. Something intense stirred within me, perhaps about my own baggage rather than Waverly’s. I had ancestors who were slaveholders in New Amsterdam. Some people in my family still evinced bigotries. I remembered that I’d often choose to be Johnny Reb when I played guns. Even if my boyhood self did not know what the Rebs stood for, why hadn’t anyone in my family set me straight? Keys and his comrades were bringing me face to face with all that now. Was my effort to honor these men somehow an attempt to extract a posthumous forgiveness, a kind of transgenerational expiation for me and my kin?
While trying to process all that, I pushed on. My research focus became George Keys’s son, George Jr. New information steadily emerged, some of it decidedly strange. At age 18, the records showed, George Jr. had enlisted alongside his father. He became a bugler in the same 22nd U.S.C.T. regiment, but was fortunate to return from the war with his health intact. Young Keys was most likely in Waverly when his father succumbed during that dark night in 1867. Then he moved down to Scranton, where he became a valet and coachman for a wealthy white man. Newspaper references over the years chronicle Keys Jr. as a well-known man about town, a Republican committeeman, a mainstay of the city’s integrated war-veterans’ association, and “one of the most respected colored men in these parts.” All good—except for his bizarre experience with his employer, Ira Tripp.
Accounts of the day report that Tripp, a war vet himself, loved to be out and about with “his loyal Negro.” It seems Tripp was an inveterate cigar smoker, so much so that his doctor told him it would kill him if he kept at it. Tripp agreed to quit, but dumped the task on his valet. Keys’s assignment became to smoke as many as 15 cigars a day and to direct the fumes into Tripp’s waiting mouth. The pair would stroll around town in a cloud of smoke, with passersby doing double-takes that drew guffaws from Tripp. This went on for years until Tripp died in 1891.
A 1970s newspaper column treated Tripp’s so-called “smoking by proxy” as amusing. But George Jr.’s death certificate listed his cause of death in 1908 as “phthisis pulmonalis”, an archaic term for tuberculosis—a wasting condition greatly exacerbated by smoking. Not so amusing after all. He died on July 4, of all days, 44 years to the day after his father was shot on the Petersburg battlefield. Father died a painful death in loyal service to liberty; son died a painful death in loyal service to a white boss’s whim.
All along my research path I’d been wondering about the name Keys, sometimes spelled Kee or Key. Had George Sr. possibly been owned by Francis Scott Key? The Key family had plantations near Frederick, Maryland, the area from which George was said to have fled. Wouldn’t that be a stunning link for Waverly?
I located some articles and put out feelers to researchers in western Maryland. The link is possible, I was told, so come on down. To prepare, I read a book about Mr. Star-Spangled Banner. Although the slaveholding Key decried slavery’s abuses and defended several poor free blacks pro bono, he spoke publicly of Africans as “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community”, and spent a good bit of his legal career opposing the Abolitionist movement. All eight of his grandsons fought with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Frederick’s other famous son, antebellum Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, similarly referred to people of African descent as “beings of an inferior order.” Taney, Francis Scott Key’s brother-in-law and also a slaveholder, authored the notorious 1856 Dred Scott ruling, which held that blacks “had no rights the white man was bound to respect.”
After three days of burrowing around in Frederick and nearby Hagerstown, I uncovered no solid leads to George. Key and his relatives certainly owned slaves, but no one on their chattel rosters seemed to be a match. A search of runaway-slave notices also came up empty.
Other disturbing facts did come to light along the way, however. I spent an afternoon with a black gentleman named David Key (no relation according to his genealogical chart) who told me about his early years living under Jim Crow in Frederick. He told how an overgrown black graveyard, the old Laboring Sons cemetery, was paved over in the 1940s and turned into a playground for whites only—and was only restored to its proper status a decade ago after blacks protested. He also told me how a bust of Roger Taney stood proudly outside the courthouse for years. It took a protest from blacks and others in the 1990s, he said, to force the city to add a side display about Taney’s odious ruling.
I visited the cemetery and the bust. I visited Francis Scott Key’s grave and monument. The upbeat signage makes no mention of the great man’s slaves or plantations. “Here he first learned the American values that guided his life”, it proclaims. Really? Which values, exactly? The one that justified enslaving other human beings?
While spinning in circles emotionally, I made my way back home with old George Keys still a mystery man. I began to feel like a slave catcher in reverse, pursuing a man to liberate him from obscurity. I hit the web to check out a suggestion that at one point George might have been held on some Francis Scott Key family properties in eastern Maryland. After a frustrating few days an astonishing story popped up: In January 1904, the now-defunct Scranton Truth newspaper had run a long profile of George Keys Jr., titled “Son of a Former Slave.” It filled in a few details about Junior’s life, but the stunner involved his account of his father’s origins.
George Sr. indeed came from eastern Maryland, in tidewater Charles County. His owner had been a physician named John Hawkins, “a most humane master”, according to the profile’s anonymous author. George was “his most beloved slave” and actually had been given his master’s name, John. Hawkins “mated” John with another slave, Mary, and set them up in a comfortable cabin. But hard times hit and Hawkins sold Mary and the couple’s two youngsters to a Carolina planter. Some time later, rather than sell off his beloved John, Hawkins gave him $60 and a travel pass and told him to head north. John migrated up to Waverly, where he married and fathered four children. He and other fugitives banded together to drive off slave-catchers who worked the area. Many runaways changed their names to elude capture and, looking at John one day, the fugitives’ leader dubbed him Key because he happened to be holding a door key in his hand.
My mind whirled with questions. Could the door-key tale be true? Why had George Senior’s army muster-in papers listed his birthplace as Frederick? Did he really have four children in Waverly, not just the two listed in the census? Who was Hawkins? What sort of kindly master sells away a “beloved” slave’s young family? And why was he so beloved, anyway? I recalled references to George as extremely fair-skinned. Was he possibly Hawkins’s own son? Had George enlisted in the Army in a desperate effort to locate and rescue his first family? My imagination careened through the possibilities.
Online records show a network of tidewater Hawkinses including a John, all holding slaves. It turns out a famous English “sea dog” of the 1500s, Sir John Hawkins—widely considered the father of the British slave trade—might be a forebear of George’s master. Could that be another of Waverly’s tortured links to history? A history center in Charles County has a file on the Hawkins family and will make it available should I visit. Could I possibly resist?
I don’t think so. I may never be able to square this circle. George may have deliberately scrambled up his story to throw people off his trail. The Underground Railroad was famous for covering its own tracks, after all. But would George have bamboozled his own son about his origins? Did George Jr. perhaps remember the story wrong, or have his own reasons for inventing a new one? For now, I’m taking their version seriously and I’ll keep nosing down this so-far cold trail. I’ll sift for evidence, seek descendants, consult with wise heads.
As I ponder it all, I am trying to maintain my composure. That’s the plan, anyway. But obsessions are not easy to predict or control. I often think that another century wants to take control of me, and if I could, I might just let it.
So it was that on my latest trip to Scranton, as I spun through the earliest microfilm of the city’s old Weekly Republican looking in vain for references to George Sr. and perhaps his obituary, I noticed in the issue of February 15, 1867, two days before he died, an announcement of a bill to open all Pennsylvania streetcars to blacks. The previous autumn, a series of accounts had told how war vets from Waverly and elsewhere banded into “Boys in Blue” units to successfully put a Republican Governor and Congressman in office and rout “the copperheads and rebel sympathizers of these parts.” It occurred to me that if George had to die then, he died in a hopeful time. He’d survived to see the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolish slavery, while the 14th, which would grant blacks citizenship, was in the works. Reconstruction was in force in the South and blacks now held office across the old Confederacy. He’d survived to see his people freed and his sons educated.
Did George find solace in any of this? He may have still grieved for his vanished slave family, but did the signs of a new era of equality ease the pain? Did his sons George and Ed sit at his bedside and read the hopeful news dispatches to him? I can see them in my mind’s eye. Perhaps I’ll visit his grave next time and rest my Weekly Republican and Truth printouts against the headstone. I might leave printouts of the 14th Amendment, and the 15th that granted blacks the precious right to vote.
Is that irrational? Perhaps. But when I was a boy my Civil War characters were pretend, their dying imaginary, their motives irrelevant. Now they’re flesh and blood, with a dozen names and a collective nobility worthy of tribute, however belated.