William Goodridge: From slavery to hero of the Underground Railroad

To understand one of Minnesota’s most notable figures in American Black History, you must go to where the story of William Goodridge began, in York, Pennsylvania.

Goodridge is buried in Minneapolis and his life isn’t very well known in Minnesota, but he was a hero of the Underground Railroad.   He had a secret room in his home and owned rail cars that could help people reach Philadelphia, where another station master would help them eventually get to Canada.

He was a station master of the Underground Railroad, risking his life and his fortune to fight slavery and guide others to freedom. The director of the William Goodridge Freedom Center Museum in York, Kelly Summerford, says that in terms of importance, Goodridge is right there with Harriet Tubman. 

William Goodridge was born into slavery.   Freed at 16.  And eventually he built a series of businesses that made him one of the wealthiest men in York in the mid-1800s.   Long before his life ended in Minnesota, he got his start as a barber in York.

"Imagine shaving the richest white men in the city," says Summerford.  "Imagine listening to how they make money by purchasing property," he adds.

In addition to being the director of the William Goodridge Freedom Center, Summerford is also a living history interpreter, assuming the role of Goodridge himself for tours of the museum.  Goodridge not only learned how to buy property, but he also eventually opened a five-story emporium, the tallest building in York of the day.   An emporium would be like a modern-day department store.

"To sell the items that he sold in his emporium, it was just about everything," says Summerford.  "He rented out space to a newspaper, to other barbers and he sold instruments.   He sold the Christmas tree.  I like to say he was the QVC of the 1800s," Summerford says with a hearty laugh.

Summerford says there was a fake bottom and a fake wall that would hide freedom seekers as he moved goods back and forth to Philadelphia. 

Goodridge’s home in York is now home to the museum in his name.   And people can view the secret room and history for themselves.

"We have the viewing window and when people look down into the viewing window some people fall to their knees, some cry and some people start singing," says Summerford.   "It’s always an experience," he says as he explains the meaning of songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and the code words woven throughout for freedom seekers.

"The band of angels were the abolitionists," says Summerford.    

Goodridge helped to hide some of the most wanted men, who had survived some of the biggest resistance efforts of the time.  One of those men, Osborne Perry Anderson, later wrote about Goodridge’s help.

There are reports that the Confederate Army wanted to kidnap Goodridge and Summerford says he certainly did have a bounty on his head.   But Summerford doesn’t believe Goodridge fled for Minnesota out of fear.   By the 1860s Goodridge’s wife had passed and his children had moved west.  His daughter Emily and her family had settled in Minnesota, and he moved there to join them.

His children continued with the entrepreneur spirit.  His sons were among the first black photographers in America, opening a studio in York first and then eventually settling in Michigan.   His daughter owned a seamstress business in the St. Anthony area of Minneapolis and was very active in civic affairs.   

Related: More on Emily Goodridge Grey

Related: More on the Goodridge brothers’ photography

You can see some of the early photographs taken by the Goodridge brothers at the museum in York.   They are also on display at the Smithsonian.

"Not only was William Goodridge a station master in the Underground Railroad, not only was he an amazing businessman, but he was a good father to his children; some of whom ended up in your town," says Summerford.  Goodridge spent his final years from the mid-1860s to 1873 in Minneapolis where he died from heart failure.   He’s buried at Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery alongside his son Glenalvin and one of his grandsons.

Kelly Summerford believes there may be artifacts hidden away in Minnesota that have yet to be discovered.   "There may be a letter that his daughter had hidden away in someone’s attic, someone’s basement, someone’s trunk or someone’s auction house that they don’t know where it’s from," says Summerford.  "It was a secret operation, the Underground Railroad and you didn’t write things down," says Summerford.   "Harriet Tubman lived and she was able to tell her stories in a free space; William Goodridge didn’t have that liberty because of when he died."