The Underground Railroad: Myth or Reality

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To the average American, the Underground Railroad continues to be the story of a network of good Samaritans helping their fellow brothers and sisters along various routes to freedom. This portrayal was developed mainly from the research of Wilbur Siebert, an Ohio State history professor, whose seminal work on the topic, The Underground Railroad: From Freedom to Slavery, was published in 1898

Siebert later published books that covered the Underground Railroad in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Ohio. His findings were based primarily on thousands of responses to inquiries he made to those who participated in the Underground Railroad or their relatives and friends that he began circulating in 1892. These inquiries, or circulars as they were called, included a survey with seven questions.1

1. What in your knowledge was the route of the Underground Road, (names and locations of “stations,” and “Station Keepers”)

2. Period of activity of the “Road”

3. Method of operation of the “Road,” with system of communication among the members

4. Memorable incidents (with dates, names of places and persons, as far as possible)

5. History of your own connection with the Underground Cause

6. Names and present addresses of any persons able to contribute other information on the subject

7. Short biographical sketch of yourself

            For many years, information about the Underground Railroad originated mainly from such recollections. Siebert’s collection was part of a body of work of remembrances of the Underground Railroad published mainly in the 19th century. Most notable were William Still’s, The Underground Railroad: A Record, Levi Coffin’s Reminiscences, and Robert Smedley’s, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

All presented a story of a loosely organized network of individuals who through various means aided tens of thousands of slaves obtain their freedom, with most being sent to Canada. As the years passed the legend grew, and original accounts sometimes became exaggerated. The fascination with secrecy and hiding places began to overshadow the real history and the people involved. It got to the point where every old home with a crawl space began to be thought of as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Of course, historians like Siebert never suggested such a thing.

      During the 1950s Larry Gara, a maverick historian and teacher, took an interest in the Underground Railroad.  He sensed there was something wrong with the traditional view, especially with the decidedly white version of the story. He developed a theory that it wasn’t quite like the old-timers had said, and he set out to prove it. His book, Liberty Line, published in 1961, made three significant conclusions:

1. The number of underground railroad passengers was vastly exaggerated

2. There was little organization in regard to the Underground Railroad and the work was mainly conducted by blacks; the role of  whites was inflated by propaganda and self-promotion. 

3. The part fugitive slaves played in their escape has been vastly underemphasized.2

                  Gara claimed that Siebert had accepted remembrances of aged white abolitionists at face value and with little scrutiny. Corresponding to his contention that the contributions of blacks had been underrepresented, Gara suggested that the book by Still, a black conductor, had not been given as much attention as the books by white abolitionists because he placed more emphasis on the heroism of the fugitive slaves than his white counterparts.3

Gara’s conclusions have since become dogma for many serious academics. His revisionist book most recently was given the imprimatur of one of the nation’s leading academic historians, David Blight, in his acclaimed study of the memory of the Civil War, Race and Reunion, published in 2001. Blight, who took his cue from Gara, is contemptuous of Siebert’s methods and the old white abolitionists who wrote to him. Siebert's book,” Blight wrote, “along with the collection pro­cess that produced it, reflected the sentimental retrospection of many North­erners as the century came to a close."4  What some might consider primary documents and the best sources available about the Underground Railroad, Blight dismissed as the braggadocio of old men embellishing their exploits:

"Many of those who answered the professor's call were seeking what we might call an alternative veteranhood. For women and civilian men, it was a way of saying that they too had served in the great cause. For some, homespun tales of helping slaves escape may have been a kind of white alternative slave narrative, a mode of participating in a literary tradition. As in soldiers' battle narratives, alleged Underground Railroad operatives recited their battles with slave catchers, and they remembered virtually no defeats."5

Dismissal of the so-called white version of the Underground Railroad also has led to a racial focus of the Underground Railroad that differentiates between black and white participants, and has in some circles led to discrediting the efforts of whites. The leading exponent of this effort to give proper credit to black involvement has been Charles Blockson, a black historian whose ancestor was a fugitive slave. The resurgence of interest in the Underground Railroad has been largely the result of his efforts, which produced several books that gave deserved recognition to black participation, and his chairing the National Parks Study that recommended a national effort to preserve and commemorate the Underground Railroad in 1995. This recommendation has led to numerous grass roots efforts to learn about the Underground Railroad and the emergence of many new independent researchers.

While all agree that more credit needed to be given to the participation of blacks, the shift in racial focus has produced a politically correct and erroneous view of the Underground Railroad that in some cases subordinates the contributions of white individuals. An exponent of this racialist view is Keith Griffler in his book, Front Line of Freedom, published in 2003. In it, he suggests that both Siebert and the important white conductor Levi Coffin had racist views that distorted the truth about the Underground Railroad.6. This is based more on conjecture than hard evidence, though they did make paternalistic statements that by current standards some might consider racist. However, this racialist perspective has contributed to the claims that the story of the Underground Railroad as presented by the old white abolitionists and Siebert is more myth than fact.

The claims made by Gara and others after him, who have revised the traditional view, need more careful analysis. The letters in the Siebert collection and the accounts from white abolitionists like Coffin need to be examined under the light of  historical evidence.

 

1. Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Ohio Historical Society, MS 116, Appendix A: 46

2. Larry Gara, “The Underground Railroad: A Reevaluation,” The Ohio Historical Quarterly, (69), July 1960: 217-230 (Gara elaborated on these conclusions in his book published the following year).

3. Larry Gara. The Liberty Line. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996 edition: xi-xii.

4. David Blight. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001: 232

5. Ibid: 233

6. Keith P. Griffler.  Frontline of Freedom: African Americans and the forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004: 2-4, 8-10.