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New book explores story of Waverly's black community, Civil War veterans

Times-Tribune - 3/4/2017

March 04--It was about dusk one night when Rodman Sisson answered a knock at the door of his farmhouse in what is now La Plume Twp. to find a fugitive seeking refuge.

Without hesitation, Sisson whisked the wanted man inside, hurried him upstairs and shoved him in the unlit fireplace of a bedroom. The runaway shimmied up the chimney, safely shielded from view. A few moments later, Sisson answered another knock at his door to find a band of slave catchers. The men barged in the house and searched the first floor. Sisson managed to keep the hunters from the second floor, all the while denying he had seen anyone. Finally, the men left.

It was the early 1840s, most likely 1843, and Sisson, an abolitionist, sheltered a slave on the lam from a Maryland plantation. The fugitive, George Keys, would remain in the area as one of the first runaways who settled in the Waverly area and formed a community there before the Civil War.

So begins "Embattled Freedom," a new book by Waverly Twp. native and Abington Heights graduate Jim Remsen.

Four-year project

The culmination of about four years of research, writing and revision, Remsen said the book provides more details than had been available previously on Keys and his contemporaries.

Remsen recalled that when he was a child growing up in the area, people were aware there had once been a settlement of black residents who lived on the edge of town, the area was a stop on the Underground Railroad and several houses in Waverly reputedly had hidden compartments.

"That was the extent of it," Remsen said. "There was no field trip in school. There was no real content to it."

Remsen, a former reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of two other books, decided to circle back and learn more about the topic while writing one of the other books, a historical novel.

His research took him across the area, researching newspaper and other accounts at libraries in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and elsewhere, to Maryland, where several of the Waverly residents labored on tobacco and wheat plantations before fleeing. He mined the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where records in old, fragile manila folders contained information on Waverly's black Civil War veterans and their service.

"I was opening files that probably no one had opened in 100 years," Remsen said.

In all, 13 members of the Waverly black community ultimately enlisted and fought in the war. Six of them, including Keys and his teenage son, ended up with the 22nd United States Colored Troops, a regiment that saw action around Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864. Remsen learned those troops, including the Waverly men, were involved in a bloody charge there, a depiction of which hangs in the U.S. Military Academy'sWest Point Museum. Others were sent to another unit, the 54th Massachusetts, the subject of the film "Glory."

As for Keys, he would survive the war but it would ultimately kill him. He was shot in the left thigh in 1864 and the wound left him bedridden upon his return to Waverly. He died in 1867; a local doctor determined the injury, infected and ulcerated, was the only cause of death. Keys is buried in the Waverly United Methodist Church churchyard, "a testament to the respect he'd earned from that white congregation," Remsen writes in Embattled Freedom.

Awarded grant

As he learned more and shared his findings with others, Remsen decided to write "Embattled Freedom." The Willary Foundation awarded him a grant, which enabled him to travel and do more extensive research, including to the Petersburg battlefield where the Waverly men fought and some sustained wounds. The book also covers the period of time after the Civil War until the time the black settlement in Waverly petered out in the 1920s, when the older residents died off and the younger generations moved away seeking work.

"The book is very panoramic," Remsen said. "The whole framework of the book is looking at how black people were treated, particularly in the North, over the course of the 13 soldiers' lives."

Deeper into story

Remsen already spoke locally about his book, including at the Lackawanna County Historical Society, society Executive Director Mary Ann Moran Savakinus said. The book delves much deeper into the story of the Underground Railroad and the fugitive slaves who settled in the area and their war service by providing details and bringing to light their personal stories, Moran-Savakinus said. The attitudes of Waverly's other residents is also an important part of the book, she said. Remsen is quick to point out that not everyone who lived in Waverly were abolitionists, like Sisson, and several held pro-slavery views.

"Some of the things he's found has been very interesting, not just about the runaway slaves, but also how people locally were reacting to the national pro-slavery versus abolitionist debate," Moran-Savakinus said.

An accompanying website, www.embattledfreedom.org, is also available as a companion to the book. Remsen said he hopes educators will use the book and website.

"That's what I'm hoping, that kids get exposed to it," Remsen said. "It's important to know."

Contact the writer:

cover@timesshamrock.com

If you go

"Embattled Freedom" officially releases Sunday at 1 p.m. with an event at the Waverly Community House.

Jim Remsen will be back in the area March 17 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. for a presentation at Library Express in the Marketplace at Steamtown.

"Embattled Freedom" may also be purchased on the Sunbury Press website, sunburypress.com.

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(c)2017 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

Visit The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.) at thetimes-tribune.com

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