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Myth, Reality and the Underground Railroad

New York Times      February 27, 2015

disunion45On Feb. 24, 1865, William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the antislavery weekly The Liberator, published an odd column – odd, because the piece, written by the New York minister Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, had already appeared in the paper, less than a year before. But Garrison believed that the article’s point – about collective memory, and collective forgetting – was an important one, and with the war’s end in sight, he wanted to make sure his readers saw it.

“It is a very curious fact in the history of public opinion,” Sawyer wrote, “that the mass of people who never think or act with early reformers gradually come to persuade themselves, as the reformation goes on and grows popular, that they were always of that party, or at least sympathized with its spirit. … Twenty years hence, there will not be a man in all the North who favored secession, or cherished any sympathy with rebels! Even now it is rare to meet one who has ever wished well to slavery, or desired anything but its final abolition!”

Garrison and Sawyer were not alone in their concern. A year earlier, Garrison’s colleague Lydia Maria Child had remarked in a letter to The Liberator that “new anti-slavery friends” who claimed to have “always been anti-slavery” were “becoming as plenty as roses in June.” Unable to bring herself to challenge these assertions, Child confessed that she simply smiled “inwardly,” marveling “at their power of keeping a secret so long!”

After the Civil War, few Northerners appeared interested in keeping their antislavery sympathies — whether longstanding or brand-new — secret at all. As Lost Cause apologists and “plantation school” novelists waxed wistful about life in antebellum Dixie, a second set of postwar writers traded their own nostalgic tales about the days of slavery. But these mostly white Northerners did not craft stories of the loving relationships forged between masters and slaves on the bucolic plantations of the Old South. Instead, they chronicled the heroic exploits of abolitionists who steered fugitive slaves through the mysterious world of the Underground Railroad.

Newspapers from Iowa to Maine overflowed with melodramatic accounts of runaways and their Northern benefactors eluding slave hunters under the cover of darkness. Story after story captivated readers with references to special codes, false walls and hide-outs in attics, barns and cellars. “A secret cave behind the beautiful sheet of water know as Butler’s Falls …within a mile from the Ohio river, was the first place to which runaways were taken,” explained a special correspondent for The Indianapolis Freeman, who in 1891 sketched out the details of a shadowy trail that began near the Indiana village of Hanover. “All operations were carried on at night, and after a brief rest in the cave, the fugitives would be conducted … to another place of safety, and from thence to other points rarely if ever more than fifteen miles apart, each night bringing them nearer and nearer that longed-for haven, Canada.”

A painting from 1893 showing white abolitionists helping slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.

A painting from 1893 showing white abolitionists helping slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.Credit Library of Congress

The clandestine air that surrounded these illegal exploits only added to the romance of the Underground Railroad. “Their organization had no rules, no bonds, no by-laws,” reported a New York newspaper in 1881. “Its secrets were as well preserved as those of the Ku-Klux, or the Inquisition in the time of Torquemada.”

The term “Underground Railroad” had come into regular usage by the 1840s, just as the equally sublime but far more tangible network of steam locomotives was spreading across the country. “The Underground Railroad is in high flight, and doing a fair business here,” wrote the black abolitionist Martin Robison Delany to Frederick Douglass from Pittsburgh in 1848. But postwar portraits, such as H.U. Johnson’s semi-fictionalized 1894 history “From Dixie to Canada: Romances and Realities of the Underground Railroad,” stretched the metaphor to extremes. The Underground Railroad “extended its great trunk lines across all the northern states,” wrote Johnson. “It was most efficiently officered, and had its side tracks, connections and switches; its stations and eating houses all thoroughly well recognized by the initiated; its station agents and conductors…; its system of cypher dispatches, tokens and nomenclature.”

These stories captured the imagination of a young Ohio State University professor named Wilbur H. Siebert, who set out in the 1890s to write the definitive history of what he called “the Road.” A dogged researcher, Siebert pored over the recollections of abolitionists and their family members in newspapers and memoirs, reached out to hundreds of antislavery veterans and compiled the names of more than 3,000 railroad “operators,” almost all of them white men. Siebert published his findings in his influential 1898 book, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,” which, along with a handful of other works that he produced between 1896 and 1951, cemented the popular image of the Underground Railroad as “a vast network of secret routes over which fugitive slaves were passed along, chiefly in the night time, from the Southern States to Canada during a prolonged period before the Civil War.”

Although Siebert tempered some of his contemporaries’ hyperbole, he nonetheless took many Underground Railroad stories at face value. Undaunted by a dearth of antebellum documentation — most railroad activists had not kept records in order to protect runaways and themselves — Siebert relied on the reminiscences of “‘old time’ abolitionists” to fill “the gaps in the real history of the Underground Railroad.” The Ohio scholar offered a specious defense of these sources, maintaining that “the abolitionists, as a class, were people whose remembrances of the ante-bellum days were deepened by the clear definition of their governing principles, the abiding sense of their religious convictions, and the extraordinary conditions” under which they worked.

Siebert also disregarded responses that complicated his findings. “We had no regular route and no regular station[s] in Massachusetts,” the abolitionist William I. Bowditch told Siebert in 1893. Three years later, Thomas Wentworth Higginson added: “There was no organization in Mass. answering properly to the usual description of the U.G.R.R.” Yet Siebert characterized the Underground Railroad as “a great and intricate network” that reached from slave states like Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky to every corner of the North. And he reinforced this image by producing a series of detailed maps of the railroad routes, replete with trunk and branch lines, several of which cut across Massachusetts.

The Underground Railroad did exist, but it was not nearly as formal, extensive or popular as Siebert and company imagined. Post-bellum literature suggested that railroad “stations” could be found in every town and hamlet north of the Mason-Dixon line and that “men and women from every class, sect, and party” aided runaways. Yet abolitionists and their activities provoked widespread hostility in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Proslavery forces killed the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Ill., in 1837. Twenty-four years later, on the cusp of the Civil War, Wendell Phillips was heckled off the stage at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston by an anti-abolitionist mob, which then chased the reformer through city streets.

Fort SumterThousands of slaves did, in fact, escape to the North between 1830 and 1860, and many of them benefited from the help of activists such as William Still, David Ruggles and Sydney Howard Gay during their journey. White and black reformers in frontier towns and east coast cities organized vigilance committees and other antislavery organizations to provide fugitives with financial and legal support as well as more covert (and frequently illegal) assistance. But these often ad hoc groups were not coordinated at the statewide or regional level, and many of them lasted only a short time.

Most fugitive slaves gained their freedom largely through their own efforts. Although a small number of individuals, including Louis Napoleon, Calvin Fairbank and, most famously, Harriet Tubman, ventured south to retrieve slaves, a majority of runaways made the harrowing journey north alone or with fellow fugitives.

Yet postwar accounts — nearly all of which were produced by white Northerners — tended to portray runaways as “passengers,” effectively reducing them to a supporting role in their own liberation. Some authors inflated the number of fugitive slaves that they had helped, while others neglected the work of black railroad operatives. Over all, they painted a picture of the Underground Railroad as a white-dominated enterprise in which runaways were spirited to freedom by their Northern guardians.

Veteran abolitionists, of course, had good reason to share their memories of the Underground Railroad. Some believed that by reminding Americans of the antebellum crusade against slavery they were bolstering the post-bellum campaign to protect the rights of freedpeople. But Underground Railroad tales could also be self-serving, a way for Northerners who had not participated in the antislavery movement to bask in the glory of the cause.

Even more troubling, many memorialists failed to connect their stories of the Underground Railroad to the postwar struggle for black civil rights. Instead, they served up what the historian David Blight describes as “a mythos of accomplished glory, a history of emancipation completed.” Just as Lost Cause ideologues strove to conceal the rise of Jim Crow — from segregation and disenfranchisement to an epidemic of lynching — behind a facade of Old South harmony, Northerners told “self congratulatory adventure tales” that implied that the nation had solved its racial problems decades earlier. In this way, they joined their Southern counterparts in turning nostalgia for life before the war into a refuge from the disturbing realities of the postwar racial landscape.

Sources: Liberator, Feb. 19 and June 10, 1864, and Feb. 24, 1865; Cleveland Leader, March 12, 1896; The Truth, April 24, 1881; Indianapolis Freeman, Oct. 31, 1891; North Star, March 3, 1848; The Elevator, Jan. 11, 1873; “The History of Clinton County, Iowa”; H.U. Johnson, “From Dixie to Canada: Romances and Realities of the Underground Railroad”; Wilbur H. Siebert, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom”; 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; David W. Blight, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”; David W. Blight, ed., “Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory”; Fergus M. Bordewich, “Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement”; John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”; Eric Foner, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad”; Larry Gara, “The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad”; Graham Russell Gao Hodges, “David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City”; Stephen Kantrowitz, “More Than Freedom: Fighting for Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889”; Lowell J. Soike, “Necessary Courage: Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle against Slavery.”

Ethan J. Kytle

Ethan J. Kytle, the author of the book “Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era,” is an associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno. Carl Geissert is a graduate student in history at California State University, Fresno.

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