It’s no accident that the Reading branch of NAACP chose Ridgewood Winery in Cumru Township for its Juneteenth fundraiser on Sunday.
“Any time we have a Juneteenth event it’s always about education about Black history and Black culture,” said Stacey Taylor, president of the organization.
Ridgewood was a stop on the Underground Railroad, something that is little known in Berks County, even among African Americans.
As part of the event, the attendees heard from Wynton Butler, a Reading School District administrator and a former social studies teacher who has long sought to connect students to the forgotten history of Berks.
Butler said he was inspired in his research by preeminent local Black historian Frank Gilyard. The late Gilyard founded the now-defunct Central Pennsylvania African American Museum. Its artifacts were given 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 railroad or underground, Butler reminded listeners. It was a network of secret safe houses that helped people seeking freedom from slavery in the South escape to the North.
Historians are still discovering how the network worked. Butler said it was important to remember the allies that those escaping slavery had, people such as the Quakers who once owned the farmhouse at Ridgewood.
Understanding Black history in the community can change how we view problems today, he said.
“If our kids had that information that not everyone is your enemy, (that) there are allies out there,” Butler said.
According to a Reading Eagle article from 2016, the property was threatened by changes in land use that came during the second half of the 20th century and encroaching commercial and industrial development.
More than once, the old farmhouse narrowly escaped the wrecking ball. Each time, historic preservationists rallied around the farm, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The oldest section of the house dates to the mid-1700s. The property was originally a Lewis family farm. Not too far away 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 Reading 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, form the famous S-curve viewed from the west summit of Neversink Mountain. The name Ridgewood, drawn from a nearby wooded ridge, was given to the farm a century later to help travelers on the Underground Railroad 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 willing in our community to help freedom seekers and create safe havens right here in this community.”
Source: Berkshire mont