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Recommended

Underground Railroad Books

Old & New

 

My NYS Books
UGRR in Illinois
Freedom's Struggle
People of the UGRR
Places of the UGRR
UGRR Links
Myth or Reality

Underground Railroad books. So many to choose from, only so much time to read them, and the list is growing, it seems, by the day. I was going to write only about new books, but then I realized that what is new depends on your point of view. For example, if you've never read Wilbur Siebert's Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom and fancy yourself an Underground Railroad expert, then you better find a copy. Go to your local library as the book is out of print, and used copies are extremely expensive. That book will be as fresh for you as the first page of any new book on the Underground Railroad you might find.

Before I begin my review, I should qualify my list by saying that this is going to be selective because space does not allow an exhaustive review. Furthermore, I'm not privy to all of the many works-in-progress, some of which the grapevine has revealed will be coming out in the near future. I will begin with vintage works, some that I've read, some that I've read in part, and some for which I need to find some time.            

Of course, Siebert's opus goes to the top of the list. This is a work of great scope and scholarship. It is a book that covers the full range of Underground Railroad topics from routes, conductors, fugitives, methods, terminology, disguises, politics, and legal issues. Published in 1898, it still is the one book that truly visits the topic in its entirety. It also has a wonderful bibliography that lists the many works published up to the time of its publication, many of them primary source material, which provide a more immediate view of the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, in recent years, it has come under criticism from revisionist historians led by Larry Gara, whose book I will discuss later. Their complaint is with Siebert's research methods that included contacting former, alleged conductors or relatives by letter for confirmation of their participation. The critics claim that these letters were colored by exaggeration and distortion, and even in some cases, false statements, which casts doubt on their reliability. Certainly, this is a valid concern, but I ask you, when you are studying history, who do you think is more reliable, a person who was there, and saw and felt it first-hand, or a person who is getting it second-hand, third-hand, or out of a book that is filtering it even further?  

The second major work of the early period of Underground Railroad books is William Still's Underground Railroad Records published in 1871. This is a wonderful book gleaned from Still's participation as a stationmaster for the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee during the 1850s when he aided more than 800 freedomseekers. It also includes vignettes on some of the major conductors with whom Still collaborated.         

Of this early period, revealing pictures also are offered by the following books:

  • The Under-Ground Railroad, by the Rev. W. M. Mitchell, published in 1860. These are the memoirs of a man of color who as an indentured servant was employed as an overseer of slaves. He later moved to Ohio, where he took up the ministry and participated in the local vigilance committee. When he wrote this memoir, he had moved to Canada and was ministering to fugitive slave communities.

 

  • The Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania by R. C. Smedley published in 1873. This is an exhaustive and much referenced study of operations in eastern Pennsylvania.

 

  • The Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, published in 1876. The engaging work of perhaps the most prolific and well-known Underground Railroad conductor. Its importance needs no further explanation.

 

  • Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad, by Eber M. Pettit, published in 1879. A series of articles published in the Fredonia Censor in 1868, and later collected for publication in this book. Pettit was an important conductor in western New York, who was widely connected with other conductors throughout the state, including Jermaine Loguen, William L. Chaplin, and Rev. Abel Brown. He sometimes errs in recollection of dates and specifics but an otherwise interesting work.

 

  • From Dixie to Canada, by H. U. Johnson, published in 1894. Another book taken from collected articles that appeared in Home Magazine from 1883-to-1889.

 

  • History of the Underground Railroad, by Col. William M. Cockrum, published in 1915. A book about Underground Railroad activities in Indiana and western Ohio.

 

  • Slave Narratives: a huge source of primary and underused information also is available in the many slave narratives that were published during this early period. Many of these are now accessible online through the services of North Carolina U. at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/texts.html. The most erudite of all are the various autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. If you haven't read them, you're in for a treat.

We move from this early period to what I will call the middle period. This is a period of reconsideration and reanalysis of Underground Railroad history. An important, positive outcome of this period is the greater attention focused on the participation of black Americans whose role as conductors had been under recognized.  Important books published during this period include three more by Siebert in 1936, 1937, and 1951 !The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts, Vermont's Anti-Slavery Record, and The Mysteries of Ohio's Underground Railroads; The Underground Railroad in Connecticut by Horatio Strother, published in 1962; Black Abolitionists by Benjamin Quarles, published in 1969; and the most influential book on the Underground Railroad of the last 50 years, published in 1961, Liberty Line by Larry Gara.           

However, just as in many situations we sometimes take two steps forward only to take one step back, this was the case in regards to the work of Gara. My contention is that Gara had an agenda to show that previous historians had it wrong. His thesis is that not only were the contributions of the Underground Railroad exaggerated but that it had to some extent become mythologized and become something it was not. In some cases, Gara is probably right, especially when considering, for example, the celebrity status to which Harriet Tubman has arisen. Not to disparage mother Harriet, but she is only one of many who sacrificed and devoted their lives to the Underground Railroad. Gara is particularly critical of Siebert, and was the original source of the common complaint heard about Siebert's research methodology. But as one contemporary researcher who disagrees with Gara has said, I wonder how thoroughly Gara examined Siebert's archives (duplicate copies are located at the Ohio Historical Association in Columbus and Harvard University). I was particularly struck by coming across an article by Gara, which preceded his book, in the pages of the journal of Ohio Historical Association, in which he outlines his criticisms of Siebert. I also have noticed some obvious contradictions in Liberty Line For example, his contention that William Wells Brown escaped to freedom without the help of the Underground Railroad, and yet later relating that Brown stayed with Quaker families in Ohio during his flight. Gara makes valid points for consideration, but they don't always conform to the facts.

The recent refocus on the Underground Railroad was led by the work of Temple University historian, Charles Blockson. He is the historian most responsible for the new wave of research. His books include The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, published in 1981, The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North, published in 1987, and The Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad, published in 1995. Perhaps even more important was his article, ^Escape from slavery: the Underground Railroad," published in the July 1984 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which had widespread exposure. Blockson's books are interesting and important for collecting already available resources into a coherent body of work. However, they are anything but groundbreaking and sometimes are plagued by minor errors. What makes him important is his ability to promote and bring to our attention the important role played by the Underground Railroad, and which it continues to play, in our nation's history. As chair of the National Parks Service study in the early 1990¨s that recommended a national emphasis on preserving the Underground Railroad, he deserves a lot of credit for bringing us into the new wave of books and research.

I'm sure I will miss some excellent recent and new books that are available and have omitted others that are equally or even more important than some of those mentioned so far. One would be Lydia Maria Child's 1853 bio of Isaac T. Hopper, whom contemporary author Fergus Bordewich calls the father of the Underground Railroad. But the suggested books I will now consider offer a start.

First on this list has to be Subversives: Antislavery community in Washington, D.C. by Stanley Harrold, published in 2003. This book is groundbreaking, for it shows through painstaking documentation, the development of an Underground Railroad organization in D.C. with ties to the Underground Railroad in Albany. N.Y. The Albany organization, incidentally, had close ties with the New York Committee of Vigilance, which was closely connected with Still's committee in Philadelphia. The book shows the collaborations among all of these organizations as well as the Thomas Garrett network in Delaware and Chester County, PA.

Another important work has to be Kate Clifford Larsen's huge revisionist history of Harriet Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land, published this year. This work is an incredible work of scholarship. Larsen even identifies the date of Tubman's birth, which Harriet herself never knew! Larsen dispels many of the exaggerations made about Tubman while presenting a woman who is just as large in real life as she is in legend. It is I'm told by people who have read this and the other recent biographies about Tubman (I've read only Larsen's), the best of the lot.

One of the best books about the Underground Railroad, told mainly from a regional perspective is Beyond the River: the Untold Story of the Underground Railroad, by Ann Hagedorn, published in 2002, about the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley, and recognized in 2004 as one of the 25 most important books for that year's survey by the American Librarian Association. This book does a wonderful job of evoking the Ohio River Valley locale and recreating the world that was the Ripley of John Rankin and John Parker.

Another work on the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley, published in 2004, which has been recommended to me though I haven't as yet read it, is Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley by Keith P. Griffler.

An extremely well researched regional book is Kathryn Grover's Fugitives¨ Gibraltar, the story of the New Bedford Underground Railroad published in 2001, which details the story of the cooperative effort of blacks and Quakers in aiding runaways through their commercial shipping operations that brought them to southern ports, and the haven that New Bedford became for runaway slaves.            

An informative addition to Underground Railroad studies are the recent books by William J. Switala, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, published in 2001, and The Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia, published in 2004. 

This brings me to one more book currently available that I hope will merit your consideration. It is my work, The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region, published in 2004, which is the first book about the network in northern New York. The book not only tells the history of the Underground Railroad in the region, but also frames it with the backdrop of national events. A second part with a survey of sites and abolitionists according to area counties, as well as other appendices useful for researchers is included.           

Last but hardly least is Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America by Fergus Bordewich published by the Amistad Books division of HarperCollins in 2005.

The author diligently researched the Underground Railroad for a number of years, quietly appearing everywhere (conference, museums, tours, etc.) and reading everything. He was able to distill the major figures and stories from the countless events that occurred to produce a book that is fascinating reading for both newcomers to the subject and experts. The author was kind enough to summarize the book and allow its publication here.

"Drawing on the latest scholarship as well as contemporary sources, this fast-paced, 450-page narrative presents a comprehensive national history of the Underground Railroad from its origins at the beginning of the nineteenth century until the Civil War. It shows how the underground came into being, how it operated, and what kinds of people -- black and white, men and women -- made it work.  Bound for Canaan interweaves dramatic stories of underground operations  with the politics of antebellum America, the economics of slavery, and the fascinating lives of fugitive slaves and the radical abolitionists who helped them to freedom. It also shows how the Underground Railroad was a movement with far-reaching political and moral consequences that changed relations between the races in ways more radical than any that had been seen since the American Revolution, or would be seen again until the second half of the twentieth century."

Many new books are in the works.  In addition to the two books reviewed on the following pages, I would recommend Scott Christianson's Freeing Charles, the story of Charles Nalle's escape from slavery and later rescue by abolitionists led by Harriet Tubman just before the Civil War, published by University of Illinois Press; Graham Hodges's biography, David Ruggles, the story of one of the Underground Railroad's most important leaders, published by the University of North Carolina Press; Bryan Prince's Shadow on the Household, the remarkable story of the Weems family, published by McClelland and Stewart; Terrell Dempsey's Searching for Jim, the story of the Underground Railroad in Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri and the clashes between those in Missouri and the Underground Railroad across the Mississippi in Quincy, Illinois, published by the University of Missouri Press; and Stanley Harrold's most recent work, Border War -- I confess I haven't read it, but everything that Harrold does is top notch -- published by University of North Carolina Press.

 
 

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