It is no coincidence that the Reading Branch of the NAACP chose Ridgewood Winery in Cumru Township for its June 15, Sunday fundraiser.
“Whenever we have an event on June, it’s always about educating about black history and culture,” said Stacey Taylor, president of the organization.
Ridgewood was a stop on the Underground Railroad, something little known in Berks County, even among African Americans.
As part of the event, attendees heard from Wynton Butler, a Reading School District administrator and former social studies teacher who has long sought to connect students to Berks’ forgotten history.
Butler said he was inspired in his research by prominent local black historian Frank Gilyard. The late Gilyard founded the late African-American Museum of Central Pennsylvania. His artifacts were donated to Albright College for display in the future. Gilyard was instrumental in identifying sites in Berks that were part of the Underground Railroad, which was not an actual or underground railroad, Butler reminded listeners. It was a network of secret shelters that helped those seeking to break free from slavery in the South to escape to the North.
Historians are still discovering how the network worked. Butler said it was important to remember the allies of those fleeing slavery, people like the Quakers who once owned the Ridgewood farm.
Understanding the history of blacks in the community can change the way we think about issues today, he said.
“If our kids had this information that not everyone is your enemy, (that) there are allies out there,” Butler said.
According to a 2016 Reading Eagle article, the property was threatened by land use changes in the second half of the 20th century and the encroachment of commercial and industrial development.
More than once, the old farm has narrowly escaped the wrecking ball. Each time, defenders of history have gathered around the farm, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The oldest part of the house dates from the mid-1700s. The property was originally a Lewis family farm. Nearby, in Robeson Township, lived Thomas Lewis, a Quaker who operated an Underground Railroad station. You can read a description of several Underground Railroad sites on the Read the NAACP website: https://www.readingnaacp.org/woven-underground and the Berks History Center website: https://www.berkshistory.org/multimedia/articles/the-underground-railroad/
Lewis Neck extends from the west bank of the Schuylkill River, and Poplar Neck, extending from the east bank, forms the famous S-curve as seen from the west summit of Neversink Mountain. The name Ridgewood, taken from a nearby wooded ridge, was given to the farm a century later to help Underground Railroad travelers identify this place of safety.
“I think it’s important that people are made aware of what we have in this community,” Taylor said. “There were people in our community ready to help freedom seekers and to create shelters here in this community. “