In my recent collection of poems, I’ve included a piece about Isaac Post. He’s an impressive figure in the history of Montrose, Pennsylvania, with a long list of accomplishments. In some respects, he might easily compare to Benjamin Franklin, a noble do-gooder and problem solver. Indeed, Emily Blackman and Rhamanthus Stockton (what a name!) recount him in their histories of Susquehanna County with many kind words, but I wanted to share a few thoughts about him, too, and maybe shed a little light about the poem I’ve included in my recent book, Public Avenue.
In her History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, Emily Blackman notes many of Isaac Post’s accomplishments. For example, when recounting his youth, she writes, “He was also the cow-boy and hunter; was depended upon mostly for venison; was acknowledged to be the best woodsman—surest to keep the points of the compass, and find his way home from the chase” (289). What strikes me most in this passage is the recognition that Post garnered as a woodsman. Her description, even in this one sentence, paints him as tied intimately to the land, which I don’t think is unusual for the time period, but there’s something about being called the “best woodsman” that makes Post exceptional. Blackman also says that Post chopped down the first tree in Montrose, summarizing a story about Post clearing a considerable plot of land without the knowledge of his father and family.
In addition to Isaac Post’s skill with an axe, Blackman’s list of his accomplishments, including building the first turnpike and acting as the first postmaster, runs very long—far too many to name here, and as I read more and more, I continue to find interesting bits, such as having the first painted building in Montrose (319). It was red, and Blackman describes its location at the southwest corner of Church Street and Public Avenue, which is the current site of the building where Slanted Art makes its home and more formerly held the offices of The Independent Newspaper. Noting his diverse accomplishments, Blackman writes, “There was not, during his life, a public improvement in which he did not have a prominent part as originator or promoter” (290). To me, these words not only reinforce Post’s role in the beginnings of Montrose, but also the importance he placed on creating a better place for everyone to live. Like so many of the Founding Fathers of our country, Post sought to improve society, not only for himself, but for the benefit of everyone.
Perhaps, most importantly, for Montrose, Post provided much of the land to form the town. It surprises me, then, that Blackman only dedicates one sentence to this fact: “Isaac Post gave the county all of the public grounds and half of the lots as marked on the first town plot” (290). This certainly deserves greater recognition than a sentence, though I can’t confess to going through Blackman’s book with a fine-tooth comb. It’s another detail, nevertheless, that points to Post’s earnestness to his community, and in this case, his donated land actually made the community in a very real sense. Perhaps, that’s something we should recognize with more gratitude than a sentence.
I’ve been most intrigued, however, by Post’s involvement in the abolitionist movement. In my recent book, I’ve included a poem inspired by reading about Montrose’s role in the Underground Railroad as well as Post’s changing views on the issue of slavery. In his article “Finding Sanctuary in Montrose,” William C. Kashatus describes Post as having a major shift in his beliefs about abolitionism. Initially, Post had belonged to a group calling for blacks to be relocated back to Africa, and wanting to bolster his philosophical position, he began researching his position, but in 1836 he left the group behind to join an abolitionist society advocating the immediate release of all slaves. At some point, he even became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves as they made their way through Montrose.
This story fascinated me, and I wanted to capture a part of this history in a poem. At the time of its composition several years ago, I had assigned my English class to write poems reflecting some of the themes of Walt Whitman’s poetry, of which we were wrapping up a unit, and I had been looking for a topic to write a poem of my own. This brought me to the research about the Underground Railroad, Montrose, and Isaac Post. It was perfect, Whitman’s themes included individuality and nonconformity, and here’s an account of Isaac Post breaking away from others, which I imagined as the majority sentiment, to follow his newly developing convictions. As an English teacher, too, the detail that this change in thinking was provoked by “reading” made the story even more relevant to me. I titled the poem, “Isaac Post, 1843,” and as I recall, the poem didn’t take long to come to life.
Looking back, now that some time has passed, I only have a faint recollection to the reason for referencing 1843 in the title. I seem to remember reading an article stating that only five years later, after Post became firmly committed to the cause of abolition, he was reported to be a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Hoping to refresh my mind, I’ve started looking for my source documents that I used for writing the poem, but I can’t locate the right details to corroborate my suspicions about the title.
Nevertheless, as I retraced some of my research, I’ve deepened my notions of Isaac Post as a man of strong convictions. As I reread “Finding Sanctuary at Montrose,” Kashatus writes about Post committing not only himself to the cause, but also his church. In April 1837, Post presented a “resolution” to his church’s members that supported the immediate abolition of slavery, which passed, but caused such a stir that the church split into two factions, those supporting abolition and those against it. Indeed, this episode might be the most compelling moment of Isaac Post’s life, and I’ve been told that our local historical society has copies of Post’s resolution to his congregation, which I’d like to hunt down at some point. What’s remarkable here, I think, is that Post is taking a moral stand. This isn’t constructing some new building or running a post office, but a new thread in his biography that reveals the inner nature of Post. He’s a man of great courage and integrity.
It’s no wonder that Post eventually became a judge for Susquehanna County, another fact that I didn’t know until I recently dug into his background again. Indeed, he seems well-suited to the position, but it’s also interesting to note, however, that while he’s working in that position, he’s also breaking the law by assisting runaway slaves on their journey north. In his Centennial History of Susquehanna County, Rhamanthus Stockton even calls him the most notable abolitionist in the county.
I wrote most of this article many moons ago, before COVID hit the country. Before George Floyd died. Before everything changed. I kept wanting to come back to this article, get it finished, and post it, but I just didn’t like the ending. And then depression and anxiety hit me like a freight train. One constant, however, has been my interest in Black Studies. I’ve been reading books, watching documentaries, and listening to commentary for several years now. It all started with the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which I read during another bout of severe depression; nevertheless, his book launched me into a world that I didn’t know existed, that I had ignored, or maybe, that I just didn’t have a chance to understand having lived in Susquehanna County for so long. But I educated myself, along with my wife who was so moved by the story of Kalief Browder (on Netflix) that she spoke to his lawyer through Instagram.
This summer I read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi, the “teen” version rewritten by Jason Reynolds. Then I read I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. And I even read a memoir by the black author Samantha Irby called We are Never Meeting in Real Life. These authors took me deeper and deeper on my journey. Most recently, I finished Kendi’s latest book, How to Be an Antiracist.
In this book, Kendi proposes that people are either “racist” or “antiracist”—there is no place in between where we can say, “I’m not racist” or “I don’t see color.” It’s racist and antiracist, and the antiracist supports policies that deconstruct the racism inherent in our everyday lives, because whether we admit it or not, the system is fraught with racism. Just the fact that more people of color are dying from Covid than white people should tell us something. And the “I’m not racist” card is simply too complacent with the system. We have to enact policies to bring about change where blacks aren’t attacked on their daily run around the neighborhood or the police can’t subdue a suspect by murdering him in broad daylight. We simply can’t be complacent anymore.
And this point brings me back to our Founding Father, Isaac Post. He worked hard during his life to make Montrose a better place, and obviously, he was a man of action. His golden moment, however, was speaking up for the immediate emancipation of slaves, which he challenged his own church members to take up with him. To me it’s an incredible story of integrity, and although his congregation splits apart when his resolution passes, he doesn’t back down. He continued onward, and even while taking a position as county judge, he also became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. For me, he is the epitome of Kendi’s “antiracist” who seeks equality through policies and real action. He doesn’t wait while the winds of change blow ever so slowly over the country. When he had a chance to take a stand, he was not complacent. He was antiracist.