(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Late last week, the news broke that a piece of American history would be remembered in Erie for years to come through a new historical marker. The announcement was a surprise to many in Erie, including local historical centers.
Ford Station is now credited as the first Underground Railroad station in Erie. It was located at the present-day intersection of Parade and East 12th streets on property owned by Emma Howell. Howell was Erie’s first emancipated slave and her husband, James Ford, was a runaway slave. Howell also was the first black woman to own property in Erie — 45 acres of farmland.
The historical marker was approved by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Kevin Johnson of Erie submitted the application for the marker. Johnson has a degree in mathematics from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in engineering from Gannon University. When Johnson and his wife moved back to Erie, he found himself frequenting the library.
“Being from Erie, I’m always looking for Erie — I usually find a lot on Lake Erie, but not so much about Erie itself,” Johnson said. It was in his reading that he found a footnote about a woman named Amy Martin of Erie. “It started talking about how her father and mother ran an Underground Railroad station here.” That footnote was part of a Martin’s testimony to a 1863 U.S. committee (the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission).
During a conversation in the Heritage Room at the Blasco Memorial Library, Johnson recounted the process of learning about Ford Station. Amy Martin’s testimony was the beginning, but it wasn’t the complete story. They learned about Martin’s father, James Ford, who was twice a slave: Ford had purchased his freedom but later was captured by Native Americans during Anthony Wayne’s war and was forced to “run the gauntlet” three times. He was taken to Detroit and ultimately sold to a citizen of Canada. He was denied his freedom papers and after eight years, he escaped with two other slaves, sailing to Cleveland. He eventually traveled to Erie where he settled.
“We knew he was someone here in Erie, so if we could find where the person lived, we could find the station,” Johnson said.
They learned that Emma Howell owned the land. Howell and Ford Station are credited with many firsts in Erie. The Ford house at the intersection was the first meeting place for Erie’s black population. It served as the first boarding house and the first tavern for black people, and it’s where black travelers could find food and shelter. Howell was the first black woman in Erie to own a boarding house, the first black woman in Erie to own a tavern, the first black woman in Erie to operate an Underground Railroad station, the first black person to speak before the Erie Borough Council (“Howell was the first black woman or man to speak in the front of the council in 1822 — they were meeting to discuss a road issue, and she argued about a bridge that was out in front of her house. They sided with her to spend money on the bridge outside her house,” Johnson said), and she gave birth to the first black child born in Erie.
Along Johnson’s historical journey are familiar names: John Grubb’s wife owned Emma Howell (Grubb was Erie’s first justice of the peace); Howell was sold by the Grubbs to William Wallace (Wallace was Erie’s first attorney); Howell and Ford’s daughter, Amy Martin grew up to have connections to both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
Johnson said he first learned about Ford Station in 2019. His work continued through the pandemic, and he now has written a book about Emma Howell that’s available to read at Blasco Memorial Library (only four copies exist).
Despite all of the names in Johnson’s research, the historical marker will only note Howell’s contribution of Ford Station. Johnson said historical markers through the Pennsylvania commission can only credit the work a person has done at the location, not something they’ve gone on to do elsewhere. “The station was run by Emma Howell, and she was an important figure in Erie’s history,” he said.
While a major Underground Railroad station in Meadville is credited with helping some 500 people, the details of Ford Station remain unclear.
“Some people didn’t want to talk about Ford Station because they were still in danger after they were freed,” Johnson said. “It’s murky to find out how many people were helped at Ford Station. Amy Martin’s testimony said ’14 or 13 people at a time’ so there could be hundreds. Once Ford Station stopped (in 1836 when the Ford family moved to Canada), there were so many runaways that had to be taken care of. There wasn’t an issue until the Fords moved, and then there was a problem.”
Ford Station was operating some 20 years before Harriet Tubman’s work. And it predates Erie’s Anti-Slavery Society.
As far as Johnson knows, the historical marker will be the only physical signs of Ford Station. 1836 was nearly 200 years ago. A pharmacy now stands where the boarding house once was. Before the pharmacy was houses. But Howell’s history is intertwined with Erie’s history. The first house Emma Howell would have lived in in Erie was the Grubb House. She also would have been associated with William Wallace’s mansion after she was sold by the Grubbs.
“This all started with a project called the ‘Early Erie History Project’ — a fire in 1823 burned everything (the historical records), and that project will continue,” Johnson said. “We don’t know what happened to most of the family after they left Erie, but the research will continue.”
Johnson is hoping his work on Ford Station completes a piece of the early picture of Erie.
“I hope this fills some holes in the importance of Erie in the Underground Railroad,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure why other people don’t know about (Ford Station) — Amy Martin’s testimony has been in the National Archives for 150 years.”