John N. Howard, of Springfield

John N. Howard, of Springfield

by Cliff McCarthy

John N. Howard had a compelling story which he shared with the Springfield Republican in 1885.[1] He grew up outside of Baltimore on the plantation of Talbot T. Gorsuch. As a child, he learned from his master’s children how to read, write, and calculate numbers in his head. By age twenty, he had worked himself into a position of some trust and authority and was allowed to go into the city to buy and sell goods. On one of these trips, he learned from a Quaker that there were places where “Negroes were free” and slavery was illegal. He discovered the name of an Underground Railroad agent, a Quaker man in Baltimore, who gave him an address of another in Philadelphia.

With this little information, he started forth to freedom, taking with him the woman whom he loved and hoped to marry once they were free. They left one night in the company of a young Black boy who rode with them for sixteen miles before turning back for home and returning their horses to pasture before they could be missed the next morning. The young couple proceeded on foot and had several close calls. Howard related one incident, when he was stopped by a white man, this way:

“He asked me if I had my master’s pass. I told him of course. He asked me to show it. I refused. He insisted. I drew a small pistol and told him that was my pass. He raised a rifle at me. I leaned against the muzzle of the rifle and told him I would die there with him or go on free. I felt the rifle tremble against my breast; it dropped at my feet and the man stepped aside. His life was worth something to him, while mine was worth nothing. I would rather have died than gone back.”[2]

Remaining within his network of Quakers, Howard was hidden for several days in an unoccupied house near the banks of the Susquehanna, while transportation across the river could be arranged and his pursuers searched for him close by. Once across the river, another Quaker contact put them in a freight car bound for Philadelphia. At one point, a trainman unlocked the door to their car and asked them a few questions. The trainman then read to them a handbill giving their description and offering a reward for their return. When the couple quickly denied having seen anyone matching that description, the trainman hesitated, then turned away, locking the car door and letting them go on their way.

From Philadelphia, the couple found passage by boat to Connecticut where they were married by Rev. Porter, pastor at Farmington, where they remained for a couple of years. The Reverend’s son, who would become president of Yale College, was at the time pastor at Springfield’s South Church and he brought the Howards to this city.

John N. Howard became a highly respected member of the Black community; he worked variously as a truckman, a laborer, and the sexton at South Church. He owned real estate valued at $600 in the 1850 census.[3]

After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, John N. Howard joined the League of Gileadites. The League of Gileadites was an organization of African Americans pledged to resist the efforts of slave-catchers by any means possible. Abolitionist John Brown came to Springfield to help the Black community organize to protect itself in January of 1851. John N. Howard’s name was affixed to its founding document.[4]

A group of Springfield anti-slavery activists sought to purchase Howard’s freedom to ensure his safety, but Howard refused to let them. However, Howard and his family were forced to flee to Canada for a time, before returning to Springfield.[5] His home was considered a stop on the Underground Railroad.[6]

In 1873, the Springfield Republican provided a brief report that revealed his standing in the community:

“John N. Howard, the colored truckman, is talked of as a Republican candidate for councilman in ward 4. He would unquestionably prove a worthy and useful member of the council, and his nomination and election would be a proper recognition of the demand of his race for political equality in fact as well as name.”[7]

There is no record that Howard ever sought political office, but this newspaper endorsement indicates the level of stature Howard had achieved.

In a city that has often neglected to honor and preserve its history, John N. Howard’s home stands today in Springfield as an exception to the rule. Known as the Crosier-Howard House, the home at 22 Salem Street has been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The historical narrative with the application dates Howard’s ownership of the house to 1854, when he purchased it from Emerson Crosier. He lived there until he sold it in 1884. The narrative includes these words: “Howard’s role as an early black activist makes his house a significant artifact in the history of the Underground Railroad in Springfield.”[8]

 Cliff McCarthy, Archivist at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History and at the Stone House Museum in Belchertown, is also Vice-President of the Pioneer Valley History Network.

[1] “Springfield Colored People: The Rapid Growth of the Colony,” Springfield Republican, 8 March 1885, p.5. 

[2] “Springfield Colored People: The Rapid Growth of the Colony,” Springfield Republican, 8 March 1885, p.5.

[3] 1850 U.S. Census for John N. Howard (Springfield, Hampden Co., MA).

[4] Sanborn, Franklin B., Life and Letters of John Brown, The, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1885.

[5] “Springfield Colored People: The Rapid Growth of the Colony,” Springfield Republican, 8 March 1885, p.5.

[6] Plourde-Barker, Michele, Massachusetts Register of Historic Places Application Form, Massachusetts Historical Commission, 22 Salem St., Springfield, March 1997.

[7] Springfield Republican, 20 October 1873, p. 2.

[8] Plourde-Barker, Michele, Massachusetts Register of Historic Places Application Form, Massachusetts Historical Commission, 22 Salem St., Springfield, March 1997.

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