What I Learned From a Crash Course in the Midwest Underground Railroad
- February 8, 2021
by Hannah Rea, Asst. Producer
I grew up in the southeast corner of Indiana, right on the Ohio River, with Kentucky in one direction and Ohio in the other. It was a small town, I graduated high school in a class of about one hundred. Being as small as it was, there wasn’t much to do, so we kids had to come up with ways to amuse ourselves. One of these ways was to look at any old house on a hill and furtively whisper, “That house has a cellar that hid runaway slaves.”
“There’s a whole tunnel system under the town that connects stops on the Underground Railroad.”
Ask anybody who lived on Ridge Avenue, full of stately old houses of brick and stone, and they’ll tell you, absolutely, there was a hidden staircase or a cellar or a tunnel entrance used to transport escaping slaves. It was a badge of pride for many of the kids in my grade. And I’ll admit I bought into it for a while. I was a middle schooler with a love of history, and the thought that such a thrilling bit of history was in my town, just a few blocks away from my house, made my heart race.
I bought it because it was exciting, because the myth of the Underground Railroad is exciting. But most of what we know about it is just that—a myth. Not a lie, more an exaggerated truth.
Years later, I’d come to realize those hidden staircases and back rooms were most likely servants’ quarters. That there weren’t really any hidden tunnels leading from cellar to cellar. That my classmates, as bored kids are wont to do, lied.
That’s not to say there couldn’t have been any Underground Railroad activity in my town. For the first few decades after its founding, it was a booming port just down the river from Cincinnati. Indiana was a free state—though discriminatory “Black laws” and practices drove home the lack of racial equality—and pockets of abolitionist activity existed across the state. There were free Black residents in my county as early as 1820. If an escaping slave crossed the river and sought help, they might just find it here.
Maybe there was some truth to the rumors.
But that’s something that’s always bothered me, ever since I realized those excited whispers about hidden passages were just lies to pass the time and garner a bit of awe from classmates. I wondered how much of it was true, how much was just rumor.
I’ve been researching the Underground Railroad pretty intensively for the past three months and, though I’ve consumed a relatively small amount of sources in a relatively short amount of time, I’ve identified some trends in how this history is covered.
‘Railroad’ in Name Alone
“When I escaped, there was no Underground Railroad. The North Star was, in many instances, the only friend that the weary and footsore fugitive found on his pilgrimage to his new home among strangers, and, consequently, the means of getting away from slavery was not as easy then as now.”William Wells Brown, National Anti-Slavery Standard, April 21, 1855
I, like most people who grew up with only a passing knowledge of the Underground Railroad, spent many years thinking it was a well-organized underground movement, with stops and conductors and set paths across the land.
The origin of the name is up in the air. Some scholars attribute it to a newspaper article, which likened the effort of guiding slaves to freedom to an efficient railroad. Others claim it derived from a declaration by an angry slave owner who was unable to recapture escaping slaves, and told his neighbors that abolitionists must use a railroad to whisk them away. In reality, it was anything but.
More often than not, the work was done by unconnected individuals or groups, often local churches, who might house the escaping person. The individual might then be directed north, if their desired destination was Canada, or to a nearby free Black settlement.
Abolitionists like Levi Coffin and Rev. John Rankin were outspoken on their involvement in the Underground Railroad, and quick to inflate stories of daring escapes and stand-offs with slave catchers. Their editorials, letters, and speeches helped spread the myth at the height of pre-Civil War anti-slavery efforts, and that legend persists today.
A more accurate picture, though, comes from agents on the ground, like John Parker. Parker was born into slavery and at a young age vowed to be a “champion of the weak,” fighting for his own freedom and for the freedom of hundreds of others.
In his autobiography, Parker makes it clear that, while the wealth and influence of white abolitionists was invaluable in arranging safe passage for some escaping slaves, the brunt of the work was done by free Black individuals living in what was called the “Borderland” along the northern banks of the Ohio River, and enslaved individuals living on the southern banks.
Firsthand accounts by Parker and others, including the influential 1872 autobiography by William Still, help dispel some of the myths that the Underground Railroad was a well-organized and connected arrangement. When the Railroad was involved in an escape, work was done by a collection of individuals and communities who worked by word of mouth and often spur-of-the-moment planning, and at great personal risk.
Often, though, in the case of escaping slaves like William Wells Brown, escape was planned and carried out entirely without help. To tell anyone was to risk being caught or recaptured, and that risk was too great for many to take.
Reading books and articles about the Underground Railroad usually don’t give this impression, though. The myth of a great connected web of allies feeds into our wish that there was a community, an organized resistance to such cruelty.
But even within the abolitionist community, with their newsletters and meetings and grand anti-slavery speeches, there were schisms. Some pushed for colonizationism, or uprooting and relocating African Americans to colonies outside of U.S. borders. Some claimed they were against slavery, but still rallied against granting equal rights to Black individuals.
Wealthy white abolitionists who used their funds to arrange travel for escaping slaves still shipped goods to and bought products from southern markets, directly supporting an economy reliant on slave labor.
As much as we want to find some powerful, unified front against slavery, calling for equal rights, some heroic underground movement that ran like a well-oiled machine to carry slaves to freedom, it simply didn’t exist in that form. Again, not a lie–but an exaggeration of the truth.
White Savior Narratives
“The movement took root in the first place on the determined efforts of African Americans to escape bondage. Even at its height the Underground Railroad did not entice African Americans to escape; rather, the loosely organized support operation was formed in response to the constant stream of fugitives.”Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley, 74
In scholarship on the Underground Railroad, much emphasis has been placed on the role of Quakers as abolitionists. While the “Society of Friends” were no doubt involved in the movement, and members like Levi Coffin are touted as vital members of the abolitionist community, it’s possible the representation of their involvement can overshadow the many free Black conductors who shouldered the majority of the burden and suffered the harshest punishments were they to be caught.
This is true of the participation of most abolitionist groups. As scholars like Keith Griffler point out, the term “abolitionist” came to be synonymous with “white,” both in contemporary anti-slavery circles and in legends and stories in decades to come. This resulted in a skewed representation which emphasized the involvement of white allies and excluded the stories of others, from free Black and enslaved participants, to Native American activists.
The phenomenon is most exemplified by the widely-spread stories of escaping slaves, those anecdotes which have come to dominate fact and fiction about the Underground Railroad.
Take the famous story of Eliza’s crossing, a woman who crossed the half-frozen Ohio River with her baby in her arms, braving the elements for a chance at freedom. Whether or not this particular tale is true, it is often held up as a prime example of the ‘escaping slave narrative,’ made popular by its inclusion in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In Stowe’s novel, Eliza is aided by a white family whose patriarch is at first hesitant to take her in until he is swayed by her dire situation and pleas for help. Eliza’s actions are brave, her love for her child is unflinching–she’ll do anything to keep her baby safe, even at intense personal risk. But she is still painted as the victim of her own story; instead, the family who took her in are the heroes for risking their wellbeing to hide her from her pursuers.
In various retellings, such as that included in Ann Hagedorn’s Beyond the River, a white slave catcher is waiting on the banks to capture Eliza, but is moved by her plight and instead helps her to safety. Somehow, despite this being the daring story of a mother fueled by the love for her child and her desire for freedom, she is not the hero.
In some way, the white abolitionist ally or the bystander is the hero, and the escaping individual is painted as a poor and helpless victim. This stereotype was true of many accounts shared by abolitionist organizations during the height of Underground Railroad activities, and, unfortunately, persists today.
“There are many ashamed to advocate the degradation of our colored brethren to the lowest rank of being, who would join the advocates of his manhood in urging the importance of his elevation, provided it might be to a privileged rank or a higher order of brutes, rather than to a level with human beings. These profess to kindle with sympathy for the sufferings of the poor slave, but really kindle with anger when the appellation man is given to the negro [sic].”Milton Sutliffe, of Warren, OH, to the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, 1835
As direct attacks on slavery proved unsuccessful, abolitionists employed other tactics. In Stowe’s book and in abolitionist pamphlets and speeches, there are calls to humanity and calls for empathy for the individual. Stowe in particular emphasizes Eliza’s motherly love, and asks her readers to imagine themselves in her shoes.
There are two main themes I’ve noticed in calls to humanity around white abolitionist circles.
- These slaves are poor and sickly creatures, and need our help;
- This individual slave was exceptionally intelligent and was inhumanely punished for it.
I believe this created a sort of selective empathy. Instead of abhoring slavery as a whole because it was cruel and inexcusable, readers and bystanders were taught to judge on a case-by-case basis. At the heart of the stories they touted as acts of heroism and mercy, the message was this: ‘This slaveholder’s treatment of this individual is cruel and inhumane.’ As if slavery in itself wasn’t always cruel and always inhumane.
There was always a condition that prompted the empathy. Abolitionist societies were far too hesitant to outright condemn slavery, to affirm that enslaved individuals were human and, on a basic human level, did not deserve such treatment.
As exemplified in the above quote from Milton Sutliffe, anti-slavery circles, for all the work they did, were still torn about the humanity of Black Americans, free or enslaved. Perhaps the empathic approach was meant to slowly but surely convince a public that did not recognize slaves as anything more than property that they deserved to be treated as humans. But I think it fell short in this regard.
Its overemphasis on the actions of allies, rather than the bravery and inner strength of the escaping slaves themselves, did a disservice to the very people it claimed to want to help.
So, What Now?
So far, what I’ve taken from my brief bit of research is this:
- Be cautious with primary sources
This sounds obvious, right? A primary source, especially a diary or autobiography, is inherently biased by the ideals and opinions of its creator. But the intended audience for a source is just as important as its author. Was it meant to bolster an organization? Was it meant to cater to a certain demographic? Was it meant to further a political agenda?
All these questions must be asked, regardless of who wrote a source. Take into account the passage of time and how it may have blurred memory; the effect of hindsight on a narrative; and the dramatization that may have been used to sell copies.
Be aware of your own personal bias, your own tendencies to accept a story that sounds exciting without asking questions. I know I’m guilty of giving people the benefit of the doubt when I like the tale they’re weaving. If it sounds too good to be true, do some further research.
- Don’t look for heroes
When the subject matter is this dark, we want to find heroes. We want to find the people who fought for freedom, who risked their lives to help others in the cause of right versus wrong. But nothing is ever that simple. To assign labels like ‘hero’ to anyone, living or dead, is dangerous as it allows you to slip on your rose-colored glasses and ignore certain undesirable details.
Personally, going into this project, I was unquestioning in my view of abolitionists as heroes. I saw the words as synonyms. And I still value the work they did, and recognize that they laid the groundwork for the fight we’re still fighting to this day.
But reading about the inner conflicts of anti-slavery organizations, the priority of public image over private action, and the exclusion of Black individuals from the dialogue gave me a harsh reality check.
These people were people, not storybook characters. Not necessarily the legends we’ve come to know. And every legend, though it is usually somewhat based in fact, must be taken with an immense grain of salt.
- Who isn’t here?
Finally, perhaps the most important question I’ve learned to ask: who isn’t included?
For obvious reasons, it was dangerous and ill-advised to keep detailed records about Underground Railroad activities, so we’ll never know the exact number of individuals who escaped. We’ll never know how many successfully found their freedom without outside help. We’ll never know how many didn’t make it across the river.
But we have autobiographies, newspaper accounts, lectures, and interviews. We have a plethora of secondary sources produced in the past century. While it’s easy to get swept up in the danger and drama of the narratives, we need to ask ourselves who’s missing.
Many narratives are dominated by the voices of white abolitionists, who spoke freely about their involvement in anti-slavery activities.
As readers and scholars, it is our job to look for the other voices, those which have been overshadowed. For the free Black communities that existed and prospered just across the river from plantations. For the enslaved individuals who risked their lives seeking freedom without help, or aiding others at great personal risk. For the Black activists left out of the discussion of their own right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Recommended Online Resources
Slavery, Freedom and African American Voices in the Midwest by Bryce McElhaney (New Territory Magazine)
Underground Railroad (Detroit Historical Society)
Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1961)
Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004)
Hagedorn, Ann. Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002)
LaRoche, Cheryl Janifer. Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad (University of Illinois Press, 2014)
Parker, John P. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996)
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1852)