The Underground Railroad Was Not a Myth – Part Two
By Tom Calarco
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.
The Underground Railroad was not a myth – Part Two : In Part One, we discussed the credibility of Wilbur Siebert, the Underground Railroad’s first and some like myself would say, most important historian. However, since the publication of Larry Gara’s Liberty Line, Siebert’s reputation has come into question, and it has been further eroded by the criticisms of the antebellum historian, David Blight.
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.
One involves a slave rescue in central Ohio for which he uses a “nostalgic” newspaper account from the Marysville, Ohio Tribune, dated September 29, 1897, that was sent to Siebert. Blight uses a mocking tone to characterize this account, suggesting it is far from the truth. What Blight apparently doesn’t realize though is that the story of Udney Hyde, the rescuer and Underground Railroad agent, and Addison White, the fugitive slave, was well-documented in Ohio newspapers during the antebellum period. Nine accounts appeared between May 20, 1857, and June 18, 1857.
We use this example to show how incorrect information can distort history; in this case, an oversight by Professor Blight.
Another unfortunate example was used by the prophet of the myth of the Underground Railroad, Larry Gara, author of Liberty Line. He used a quote from William Wells Brown in an abolitionist newspaper from 1855 saying he escaped in 1834 without the help of the Underground Railroad to justify his contention that most fugitive slaves escaped without any assistance.
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.
Writer Name : Tom Calarco
Writer Bio : Tom Calarco is co-author with Don Papson of Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City, published by McFarland and Company. Tom is the author of seven books about the Underground Railroad and was the winner of the 2008 Underground Railroad Free Press prize for advancing the knowledge and study of the Underground Railroad.