Born a slave in Maryland in 1801, he escaped as a boy and about 1824 came to Meadville. A barber, he was long active in the Underground Railroad. His Arch Street house, since torn down, is estimated to have harbored some 500 runaway slaves prior to the Civil War.
Born into slavery in Maryland in 1801, Richard Henderson escaped to Pennsylvania, a free state, as a child. He then arrived in Meadville in 1824, opening a barber shop downtown. Richard Henderson became a prominent figure in the town through his successful business, as well as his role in founding the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1852, the first African-American church in the county.
Henderson’s status in Meadville allowed him to become a significant figure in the Underground Railroad - a decentralized network of routes to protect escaped slaves - in the region. Due to the dangerous nature of the Underground Railroad, it was important for towns to have multiple stations (safe-houses for escaped slaves) in order to disorient slave catchers. As such, Henderson coordinated his activities with at least six other conductors (operators of Underground Railroad stations) in the Meadville area, such as the Huidekoper family, as well as the famous abolitionist John Brown. Many of the members of the Bethel AME Church were suspected to have been involved in the Underground Railroad as well. However, Henderson appears to be the leading conductor in the region, helping an estimated five hundred slaves escape to freedom. Interviews with his sons reveal that slaves would typically arrive early in the evening, and, once given a meal, rest, and guidance, would leave in the early morning.
These escaped slaves would likely have been traveling upon the western route to Erie, a critical, popular route for escaped slaves traveling north to Canada, where slavery was completely outlawed and slave catchers from the Southern states were not welcome. Many Underground Railroad routes from elsewhere in the state, including Bellefonte, Pittsburgh, and Coopertown, intersected at Meadville. From Meadville, two routes to Erie were possible for escaped slaves, be it directly north to Erie or a northwest diversion to Corry. Meadville’s status as a key junction on the Underground Railroad was thanks to the strong abolitionist spirit in the community instilled by Richard Henderson.