Underground Railroad: Fact and Fiction
William C. Kashatus
February 6, 2002
I’ve been waiting for February to arrive for the last three years.
That’s when I began planning for a multimedia exhibition on the Underground Railroad, the clandestine movement of African-American slaves escaping the antebellum South via a loosely organized network of abolitionists who assisted them in their quest for freedom in the North.
It was a timely proposition. President Bill Clinton had just initiated a national dialogue on race, and discussions of racial profiling, reparations and affirmative action were hot topics.
What’s more, the Underground Railroad seemed to stir as much controversy among historians as the political climate of antebellum America in which it operated. Depending upon whom you read, African-American or white abolitionists were given primary credit for its success. Preparing for the exhibit became a lesson in race relations itself, past and present.
Traditionally, the story of the Underground Railroad is told in the context of a free North and a slave-holding South. White abolitionists are credited with the success of the clandestine enterprise, while free black participation is marginalized. Fugitives are generally depicted as helpless, frightened passengers of a white-organized network. We are left with a mix of historical fact, shrouded in more than 150 years of mythology based on daring rescues, ingenious hiding places, and great escapes.
Because the Underground Railroad was outlawed by federal fugitive slave laws, first in 1793 and again in 1850, it had to operate in secrecy. Many basic facts about its history are unknown. Several accounts were written years after the fact by white abolitionists, who tended to emphasize their own heroics and omit the contributions of others, most notably the free black community and the fugitives themselves.
Often these accounts were further embellished and replicated in subsequent novels, plays, and historical monographs. The result was an overemphasis on white abolitionist involvement, particularly among Quakers, and an oversimplification of a complex historical phenomenon that involved many religious groups as well as free blacks and fugitives themselves.
In fact, the success of the Underground Railroad was due not only to white and free black abolitionists, but to the ingenuity of the runaways themselves. William Still, an African-American station master and clerk of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, personally interviewed the fugitives who came under his protection. He recorded their personal histories – where they came from, who their masters were, how they escaped, why they escaped, and the dangers they encountered – and published them in an 1872 book titled “Underground Railroad.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Still credited free blacks and fugitives as well as white abolitionists with the success of the movement. “As a general rule,” he wrote, “the passengers of the Underground Railroad were physically and intellectually above the average order of slaves and were determined to have liberty even at the cost of life.”
Such figures as Henry “Box” Brown, who freighted himself to freedom in a wooden crate, and Ellen and William Craft, who ingeniously disguised themselves as a slave master and servant and traveled by train and boat from the Deep South to Philadelphia, were not helpless individuals but very capable, self-reliant people who took matters into their own hands.
Still also acknowledged the “Christ-like exhibition” of white abolitionists such as Thomas Garrett, Levi Coffin, Lucretia Mott, and William Lloyd Garrison, “who served the anti-slavery cause in its darkest days.”
More recently, historians Charles Blockson, John Hope Franklin, and James and Lois Horton have followed Still’s lead in giving us a much-needed and more balanced approach to the story of the Underground Railroad.
But the Underground Railroad is just as important today as it was 150 years ago because of what it can tell us about ourselves and our society.
During the last three years, I’ve been invited to join several organizations with an interest in the topic. Some have an interest in education. Others simply want to make a buck. I’ve been welcomed into the homes of and embraced by black Americans whose ancestors were slaves, and criticized by others who take exception to a “white historian interfering with black history.”
I’ve been applauded by the members of my own denomination who understand the importance of presenting a more objective view of history. Others who have been critical of me for dimming the spotlight that once shone almost completely on Quaker abolitionists.
And I’ve met some of the most committed people, both black and white, who understand that the Underground Railroad, like the topic of slavery itself, is critical to understanding our mutual destiny as a people.
More important, I’ve come to appreciate that race, like gender and economic class, historically defined the degree of individual and group success in U.S. society. Race, in particular, is a social and cultural construction created by white society to make sense of their world.
It explained the subordination of one culture to another, and how the economic advancement of some depended upon the exploitation of others.
But this simplistic view denies the ability of all people to affect their everyday lives. It reduces blacks to helpless victims and dismisses the fact that they were a powerful force in shaping their own history, and their own freedom.
At a time when our nation is looking to the past for examples of cooperation between black and white people to inform a much-needed dialogue on race, we cannot afford to ignore the contributions of both groups to the ongoing struggle for social justice in this country.
Whether we are black or white, we all have the power to shape a common history and the responsibility to do so for our children. Ultimately, they will be the beneficiaries or victims of our examples.