The Underground Railroad: Myth or Reality
The Underground Railroad Was Not a Myth
All the tracks of the Underground Railroad are gone. All the abolitionists have vanished. All the slaveholders have turned to dust. And all the freedomseekers are rejoicing with their maker, for their legend lives on. It’s this legend that drew me to study them, to learn about their secrets.
After more than 20 years of study and seven books, I have learned a great deal, and what I know now is that the Underground Railroad was anything but a myth. That’s why when I read the New York Times Op-Ed, “Myth, Reality and the Underground Railroad,” I became agitated. According to Ethan Kytle and Carl Gessert, academicians from California State University, Fresno, the Underground Railroad is a myth based on “melodramatic accounts,” “hyperbole,” and Ohio State University professor Wilbur Siebert’s “specious defense” of the recollections of former agents.
This opinion is nothing new. Larry Gara first trumpeted this message in his book, Liberty Line, published in 1961, and more recently, David Blight has expanded on it in his chapter on the Underground Railroad in Race and Reunion. In fact, Kytle and Gessert use some of Blight’s pet phrases of sarcasm from that book.
I take issue with this. There is ample evidence that the Underground Railroad was a daily reality. We find much of the proof we need in the accounts of Philadelphia's stationmaster William Still, who published his records in 1872, and in New York City stationmaster Sydney Howard Gay’s “Record of Fugitives.” In the “Record” which was recently published for the first time in Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City, Gay names the people who forwarded fugitives to him and lists agents in New England, New York and Canada to whom he forwarded the fugitives.
So what are we to make of the quotes used by Kytle and Gessert made by abolitionists Thomas Wentworth Higginson and William I. Bowditch that there was no real organization and no regular route or stations for the Underground Railroad? The problem is that they are taken out of context. One needs to read the entire letters and have an understanding of the context from which they are made.
Both men were members of the Boston Vigilance Committee, Boston’s Underground Railroad organization. There were 209 members, and 46 black associates whose homes were used as safe houses. From 1851-1860, it aided 430 fugitives from slavery. But that doesn't account for the fugitives aided by the three prior committees: the first organized in the spring of 1841 by Charles Torrey, the second by William Nell, and the third by Bowditch and his brother, Henry. Bowditch's home, incidentally, was used to harbor such famed fugitives as Henry Box Brown and Ellen Craft.
That there was no regular route or stop does not mean
there was no Underground Railroad. Routes and stops were usually dictated by
the situation. And using such examples out of context misleads and
misrepresents the true nature of what was actually occurring.
Though Siebert did make some errors and hasty judgments, like the lawn jockey being a marker for an Underground Railroad stop, that doesn’t discredit the full body of his work. Blight and Gara focused on these errors in an effort to debunk the Underground Railroad legend. Ironically, their myopia led them into errors of their own.
In Blight’s Race and Reunion, an otherwise
brilliant presentation on how Confederate supporters mis-remembered the
Civil War and its causes, he attempts to apply this theory to the
Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, he errs in his choice of examples.
The truth was, however, that when all seemed hopeless, Brown encountered a Quaker in Ohio who took him in and helped him recover so that he could continue his journey. Brown was so grateful that he took the name of the Quaker, Wells Brown, as his own as a free man. Gara neither mentioned that Wells Brown was involved in the Underground Railroad in Buffalo, nor that he took a job as a ship’s captain on Lake Erie and regularly took fugitive slaves to Canada. He also doesn’t place the Wells Brown escape in its proper context. While the Underground Railroad was always decentralized in Ohio, in 1834 it was still developing there.
There are other egregious examples of this mythologizing the history of the Underground Railroad by contemporary historians. They believe they are doing it in the service of bringing us the truth. But attacking Wilbur Siebert and those who have freely passed down their stories to posterity does not serve this end. They are not responsible for the apocryphal story of quilts codes, the over emphasis on “hidey holes,” and the iconification of Harriet Tubman, John Brown and Frederick Douglass to the exclusion of the hundreds of people who were involved in the Underground Railroad. In fact, the key to unlocking the real truth of the Underground Railroad can be found with agents like Sydney Howard Gay and Louis Napoleon, whose stories have now been brought to light for the first time by both the new book of Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom, and the new book by myself and co-author, Don Papson, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City.
Sources: Mary Rogers Diary, November 3, 1844; William Wells Brown, “Narrative of William W. Brown, An American Slave; Sydney Howard Gay, Record of Fugitives, 1855- ; Springfield Republic, May 20, June 5, 1857, June 19, June 26, 1857, July 3, 1857; Citizen and Gazette, June 5, 1857 and June 12, 1857; Cincinnati Enquirer, June 18, 1857; Ohio State Democrat, June 18, 1857; William Still, Journal C; “William I. Bowditch to Wilbur H. Siebert,” April 5, 1893 and “Thomas Wentworth Higginson to Wilbur H. Siebert,” July 24, 1896, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio Historical Society; Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom; Vincent Y. Bowditch, Life and Correspondence of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch; Wilbur Siebert, Vermont's Anti-Slavery and Underground Railroad Record; Larry Gara, “The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad”; Gary L. Collison, “Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen,”; David W. Blight, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory; Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom; Don Papson and Tom Calarco, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City.