Moncure Conway House Designated Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site: Norman Schools

By Norman Schools

Human Unity. Men we have, but not yet Man.” The quote is from Testimonies Concerning Slavery (1864) by Moncure D. Conway.


Freethinker and abolitionist Moncure Conway

Conway was a radical abolitionist from the South who had been exiled even by his closest kin, one of the leading and prominent aristocratic families of old Virginia. In 1862, he led a large group of freedom-seekers to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to safety and resettlement. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., referred to him as among the “dirty-linened friends of progress . . . Virginia-born, with seventeen secesh [secessionist] cousins, fathers, and other relatives . . .”

Ralph Waldo Emerson had written Conway, “A true soul will disdain to be moved except by what natively commands it, though it should go sad and solitary in search of its master a thousand years.”

Conway House is located in Falmouth, Stafford County, Va., an old Colonial port town on the Rappahannock River, slightly upstream, and opposite the city of Fredericksburg. During the Civil War, the area including Conway House witnessed much devastation and several major battles. Today, Conway House is a Virginia State Landmark, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been nominated as a National Landmark.

Moncure’s father owned more than 50 slaves. However, Moncure Conway knew that these slaves wanted to be free:

The flowers bursting into bloom whispered “Break thy bonds,” and the flying cloud said “Be free!” The Strain was taken up by the winds, I heard it in the ebb and flow of the tide, and to it moved the stars in their courses.–M. D. Conway

Conway knew that those who embraced slavery were slaves themselves to that institution. Moncure, Daniel, and Conway were the names of three of the region’s most formidable families, with relations by birth to the Harrisons, the Taylors, the Madisons, and the Lees, collaterally through two lines to George Washington, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, an attorney general of Virginia, and a member of the state legislature. Yet with all this prestige and distinguished privilege, the slave-holding Conway family had not dealt with the moral question of slavery. The Civil War forced the issue and divided the family. Moncure Conway would later write, “The human mind, inspired by the heart, shapes in the future an ideal that survives the decay of dogmas.”

On August 23, 2004, Conway was honored by a Virginia State Historical Highway Marker. Prof. James Bryant remarked: “Recognizing a man rejected by old Confederate Stafford is a milestone . . . in the past, Virginia honored those who fought for the Confederacy. Finally, in the 21st century, Virginia is recognizing another perspective of the war.”

A newspaper account of the event related: “Last week, for the first time, a descendant from the Conway Colony came to Stafford.”


Moncure Conway House, Falmouth, Va., is a state landmark, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and was recently designated by the National Park Service as an Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Historic Site.

On June 13, 2003, the state of Ohio honored Conway and the Conway Colony in Yellow Springs with a historical state marker. Both of these markers were dedicated with recognition by the Governor of Ohio and the Governor of Virginia respectively.

In closing the dedication, Prof. John d’Entremont remarked: “Conway knew what, at their best, Melville and Steinbeck and Kerouac knew–that Americans live up to their destiny not by staying close to home (whether literally or figuratively) but by leaving it, by venturing, by going to sea, or on the road. Walt Whitman (whom Conway admired and helped) said America is really the greatest poem.

“How do you put that life on a sign? You don’t, but it’s okay, because such a sign is really more about the generation that creates it. The sign says a little about Conway, but a lot about us. In Conway’s time, we now acknowledge, Virginians came in different colors, degrees of freedom, religion and political views–and to us, now, they all matter. . . .

“And the sign says, finally, that we Virginians honor one who went away, who had, once, to go away–because we honor his principles, his values, his quest, and we recognize, more than many of his contemporaries in the region could, the virtue of those values, the power of those principles.”

In 2005, a new page is being written in the history of the Moncure Conway House as the Moncure Conway Foundation is created. Many goals are already being envisioned, including site interpretation.

The descendents of the Conway Colony in Yellow Springs, Ohio, have expressed their desire to retrace the journey of their freedom-seeking ancestors, visiting Stafford County and Conway House. The Moncure Conway Foundation hopes to make this a reality and share this great humanitarian story with the nation through a documentary.

Norman Schools is the new owner of Conway House.

Freedom From Religion Foundation