Perilous Lure of the UGRR
I recently came across an article in the New Yorker published in 2016 that I somehow missed. However, I did see an Op-Ed with a similar theme in the New York Times that year. Both claim the activities of the Underground Railroad were greatly exaggerated. I sent in a rebuttal to the NYT, but it was never published.
This New Yorker article was longer and more in depth and argued its case more cleverly and forcefully. It also included facts, which based on my study seem dubious.
I have been fighting against the idea that the UGRR was more legend than fact and this article was another strong argument ignoring the facts.
So what is the legend?
That an organized group of those committed to end slavery set up a vast network that regulated the passage of fugitive slaves (freedom seekers is the politically correct term) to the Promised Land of Canada.
What are the facts?
A loosely-organized group of those committed to end slavery established a vast, sometimes haphazard network that facilitated the passage of freedom seekers to the Promised Land.
Yet, despite all the evidence that the UGRR was real, debunkers want to turn it into a fairy tale. For some, it might seem like that, especially the tale of Henry “Box” Brown who mailed himself to freedom in a pine box which he described in his narrative, and which was highlighted in Ms. Lost’s article:
The box which I had procured, wrote Brown, was three feet one inch wide, two feet six inches high, and two feet wide … I went into the box— having previously bored three gimlet holes opposite my face, for air, and provided myself with a bladder of water, both for the purpose of quenching my thirst and for wetting my face, should I feel getting faint. I took the gimlet also with me, in order that I might bore more holes if I found I had not sufficient air. Being thus equipped for the battle of liberty, my friends nailed down the lid and had me conveyed to the Express Office.
It’s telling that Ms. Lost would fix on this real but seemingly mythical event. She seemed to suggest that Brown’s daring inspired the UGRR. However, thousands of fugitives already were in Canada by this time, some of them concentrated in established fugitive slave communities like Wilberforce, Dawn, and Buxton.
She also belittles the efforts of Quakers and the white evangelical movement and points out that not enough attention was paid to the African Methodist church. This church founded by Richard Allen did play an important role in the development of the UGRR, but it was the evangelical movement of the Great Awakening that spurred the development of abolition and mainstream development of the UGRR. Without the latter, the efforts of black abolitionists would never have been as successful because they comprised such a small number and were working in an environment, even in the North, that was largely prejudiced against them.
She also claims there has been a “lopsided” awareness of the efforts of whites in contrast to blacks in the UGRR. This is an old argument and while there is some truth to it because most of the remembrances were written by white authors, the most lopsided awareness that actually exists is that of Harriet Tubman. While she was truly a remarkable woman, there were many others little known who did far more.
Say all you want about hiding places, we need to remember that aiding fugitives was illegal and could result in huge fines and prison time. To say they acted with near impunity in their “antislavery strongholds” belies the facts. Did she know that Thomas Garrett’s role in one caper cost him $200,000 in today’s money, or Passmore Williamson and Samuel Burris, members of the Philadelphia Underground Railroad, both were arrested and jailed not far from their strongholds, that Charles Torrey who was working with the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee was arrested and sent to prison where he died?
Aiding fugitive slaves was illegal and pro-slavery elements were everywhere. For instance, Solomon Northup was kidnapped into slavery in upstate New York by locals who tricked him to go to DC to perform in a circus.
And any abolitionist, no matter their color, faced life or death, any time they dared cross into the Mason-Dixon line to rescue slaves, as did Seth Concklin, Richard Dillingham, and John Fairfield, all white abolitionists who died as a result. One of the greatest slave rescuers, John Parker of Ripley, Ohio, was black and he was never caught, and the same for William Parker, who fled to Canada after the Christiana riot.
To say “abolitionists spent only a tiny fraction of their time on surreptitious adventures” like aiding fugitives shows her lack of knowledge about how intense and absorbing the efforts of the Underground Railroad was. Did she forget about the lifelong devotion of those like Isaac Hopper, Richard Allen, Levi Coffin, John Rankin, Levi Coffin, Thomas Garrett, David Ruggles, Theodore Wright, Charles Ray, Sidney Howard Gay, and William Still?
It was a time of feverish activity by abolitionist organizations, whether secular or religious: constantly spreading awareness; raising money; offering shelter, food, and clothing; and directing fugitives to those who could transport them along their way to freedom.
Just for her information, it is estimated that by 1840 when the UGRR network was maturing, there were 2,000 antislavery societies with an estimated 200,000 members.
But the greatest faux pas of all was to say that those slaves in the Deep South didn’t know the UGRR existed and because she claims no UGRR existed in the Deep South, about which she is mistaken, they fled south to Mexico or other locations. She also suggested that many others fled to maroon communities in the Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina, and she claims the number of maroons and those going to Mexico or beyond “likely outnumbered those who, aided by Northern abolitionists, made their way to free states or to Canada.”
This is a ridiculous statement, considering attempts by free blacks in the North for expatriation to places like Haiti were largely unsuccessful and that the most generous estimates of maroons was little more than a thousand.
In contrast, by the Civil War, some estimate as many as 75,000 fugitives were living in Canada, though the most likely estimate is 40,000 according to the foremost historian on blacks in antebellum Canada, Robin Winks.
Many reports from the antebellum period state that the South lost 1,000-to-1,500 slaves annually from 1830 on, and UGRR traffic increased after 1850 because of the Fugitive Slave Law which gave greater power to slavecatchers for the rendition of fugitives, causing many fugitives then living in the North to flee to Canada.
Another problem with Ms. Lost’s essay was her conflating the UGRR with how it was depicted by Colin Whitehead in his book, The Underground Railroad. His book was mostly fantasy, a metaphor for black oppression and many of the details depicted never happened, like an actual railroad that was underground transporting fugitives. Only shortly after the brutal Nat Turner rebellion that terrified the South were slaves lynched wholesale in the antebellum period like during Jim Crow—slaves were too valuable as property.
The threat of rebellion did, however, cause slavery to became more oppressive and brutal. It made it not only harder to run away because of the increased slave patrols but also more compelling because of its increased harshness.
When we think about the Underground Railroad, there is a comparable situation today that can make us think why it’s almost too good to be true.
Imagine, an illegal immigrant coming to your door and asking for help, the immigrant has small children, and if the authorities catch up with them, they will most certainly be separated and sent to internment camps that are like prisons. How many of you would help them? And how many benevolent organizations are breaking the law to help them?
That was the Underground Railroad and it helped thousands of people become free.
Nothing like that exists. In fact, it seems inconceivable today, probably because it was much easier to do secretive work. There is an organization, though not analogous, that calls itself, Our Underground Railroad (OUR), which helps kids get out of sex trafficking. I know little about it, so not able to pass judgment.
Of course, myths did develop like the one about the use of quilts to direct fugitives with codes woven into their patterns. It’s a good story but it didn’t happen. But Ms. Lost is right about one thing. They were being too open about what they were doing. Consider this ad written in 1843 by Abel Brown advertising his Underground Railroad work:
Such compassion seems mythical to us today, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist as the debunkers would have you believe. Its mythic staples of hiding spaces, codes, and more recently quilts that have been considered earmarks of the UGRR story have overshadowed this.
Thousands, probably tens of thousands helped a fugitive slave at one time or another. By the late 1850s, there were full-scale battles between northern abolitionists and federal marshals over the freedom of one fugitive slave; there was a war in Kansas, from which emerged victorious, the champion of abolition, John Brown. Many were ready and willing to fight to end slavery, and the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin published first serialized in the National Era in 1851 was a reflection of the feeling in the North.
No, the Underground Railroad was not “hardly used” as Ms. Lost claims. It’s a shame to belittle what was one of the most admirable chapters in American history, far more worthy of celebrating than all the wars we have fought.
It’s time we stop claiming it didn’t exist.