Underground Railroad’s Relevance to Us Today

The Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania was the topic for my master’s thesis at Indiana University South Bend. This blog is part of my creative project utilizing original photographs and revealing information and reflections on this research.

What follows are blogs about individuals, myths, cemeteries, houses and other buildings. But those were just bits and pieces of whole picture of the Underground Railroad.

Fergus Bordewich’s (2007) New York Times article, captures the larger meaning and enduring lesson of the Underground Railroad. He writes:

The larger importance of the Underground Railroad lies not in the fanciful legends, but in the diverse history of the men and women, black and white, who made it work and in the far-reaching political and moral consequences of what they did.¹

His last paragraph resonated with me:

…the Underground Railroad still has something to teach: that every individual, no matter how humble, can make a difference in the world, and that the importance of one’s life lies not in money or celebrity, but in doing the right thing, even in silence or secrecy, and without reward.²

Even though the impetus for this project was the family lore that my grandfather’s house in Roscoe, Pennsylvania (Latta stone house), was a stop on the Underground Railroad, I now doubt the accuracy of that lore.

I want to believe my ancestors and whoever lived in the house believed in the freedom of fugitive slaves. Maybe they helped, maybe they didn’t have the opportunity.

Maybe identifying the house as part of the Underground Railroad helped them convey to society what they believed, but were apprehensive to vocalize.

¹ Fergus Bordewich, “History’s Tangled Threads.” NY Times Opinion Page. New York Times, February 2, 2007, accessed March 27, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/02/opinion/02bordewich.html?_r=2&e%20x=1171083600&en=2cf8369299cdf9e2&ei=5070&emc=eta1.

² Ibid.

Published in: on April 29, 2011 at 10:46 am  Comments (3)  

Martin Delany remembered

Among my travels through southwestern Ohio (October 2010) I stopped at the cemetery where Martin Delany is buried, located in Wilberforce, Ohio. Although Delany was born in Virginia, he spent many years in Pittsburgh, PA advocating equality for his race.

In addition to his writing, medical practice, and traveling (see post – Father of Black Nationalism 4/3/11),

Martin Delany monument

Delany was the first black major in the Union Army.

Etching of Major Delany

US Veteran


Click on picture to enlarge

Delany's previous headstone - photo credit: Bennie J. McRae, Jr.

There are several websites as well as a book on Delany.

Robert S. Levine, Martin R. Delany A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Bennie J. McRae, Jr., Delany Monument dedication.  March 31, 2004, accessed April 6, 2011. http://www.bjmjr.net/delany/home.htm.

Jim Surkam, To Be More Than Equal – The Many Lives of Martin R. Delany. Ed. Jim Surkham. West Virginia Humanities Council and the George Washington Carver Institute, n.d., accessed April 6, 2011. http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/delany/home.htm.

Published in: on April 6, 2011 at 10:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Quilt myth debunked

The quilt myth argues that quilts were used to help escaping slaves find their way to freedom by various blocks, or signals in the quilts. They were hung or displayed at safe houses so the fugitive slave would know it was alright to approach that house for help or directions to the next location. (see post Logistics of Quilts as Code, 3/5/11)

Many websites explain the pitfalls of this myth, but that does not stop the myth from continuing. A book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad was published in 2000 asserting that quilts were used to helped fleeing slaves.

Giles Wright, Jr. © Hoag Levins

Giles R. Wright, Jr., a renowned Africa-American scholar, offered a critique of the book Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad to the Camden, New Jersey Historical Society in June 2001. He rejected “the central thesis of Hidden in Plain Viewthat quilts were used to send coded messages to UGRR participants.”¹ As he stated in his presentation…

1.       Neither of the co-authors is a black historian. In order to write knowledgeably about the UGRR, you must first be a student of the large black historical experience in which the story of the UGRR is located.

2.       Aside from the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel Williams, the book offers no documentation for its thesis, relying instead on sheer conjecture and speculation in its lack of fidelity to historical truth.

3.       Contrary to popular belief, the overall number of UGRR runaways was very small, a tiny fraction of the total slave population.

4.       Fugitive slaves coming out of South Carolina who used the Underground Railroad usually headed in a northeasterly direction and not towards Cleveland as Hidden in Plain View asserts.

5.       Not all UGRR participants engaged in making very detailed plans before their flight. Hidden in Plain View seems to assume that UGRR participants planned their escape over a considerable period of time that allowed them to learn the ten-point quilt code.

6.       We are never told in Hidden in Plain View who created and operated the encoded quilt system.²

Barbara Brackman

Another person debunking the myth is Barbara Brackman. A respected author and quilt historian, Brackman also debunks the myth that quilts were used as signals to fugitive slaves. She developed a fact sheet that supports that there is no historical evidence for quilts as code. Her site also offers a sermon from Ted Pack as a “summary of [the quilt myth] controversy.”

The Quilting in American website offers a good summary of the quilt myth and offers links to books by other debunkers including: Judy Anne Breneman, Leigh Fellner, and Kris Driessen.

So why does the quilt myth continue? I guess we want to believe the story is true. Perhaps it is like a good fiction book that makes us keep reading until the last page.

Who started the Latta stone house being a stop on the Underground Railroad? I’ll admit it was a good story growing up to imagine that part of history was tied to the house. But…

… faked history serves no one, especially when it buries important truths that have been hidden far too long.³ ~ Fergus Bordewich

Fergus Bordewich

Author Fergus Bordewich, wrote an opinion article for the New York Times in 2007 addressing myths regarding the Underground Railroad. He pointed out that while embellishments don’t diminish the act, untruths perpetuated discount the heroic acts of others that did help the Underground Railroad system work. For example, Harriett Tubman supposedly helped 300 slaves escape, the number was closer to 70.4 This embellishment hasn’t diminished Ms. Tubman’s role, but rather, distorted the facts. She is remembered much more than David Ruggles, who was “very active in anti-slavery organizations helping over 600 enslaved people, including Frederick Douglass, escape to freedom.”5

Bordewich wrote  Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America6 which is excellent. He also has a website and blog, as well as a great visual timeline of the Underground Railroad.

1Giles Wright, Jr. CRITIQUE: Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Ed. Hoag Levins. Historic Camden County, 2001. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. http://www.historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews11_doc_01a.shtml.
2Wright, Jr., ibid.
3Bordewich, Fergus. “History’s Tangled Threads.” NY Times Opinion Page. New York Times, 2 Feb. 2007. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/02/opinion/02bordewich.html?_r=2&e%20x=1171083600&en=2cf8369299cdf9e2&ei=5070&emc=eta1.
4 Bordewich, ibid.
5The David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History & Underground Railroad Studies. Accessed 10 July 2011. http://www.davidrugglescenter.org/?page_id=7
6 Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005).
Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lionel Richie and cemeteries

I have always enjoyed Lionel Richie‘s music – from his time as a member of the Commodores to his career as a solo artist – his music always resonated to me. When I saw he was going to be on NBC’s  “Who Do You Think You Are?” I thought there might be a connection to my research.

About half way through the episode, Richie travels to a cemetery to look for his relative’s headstone.  It was late fall and many leaves were on the ground.  When his car pulled up and he saw how disheveled the grounds were, I could empathize immediately with him.

Last fall on my visit to the grave sites of people I’m researching, I found a church cemetery that is completely forgotten. This little cemetery is near where the Little Zion church once stood and is no longer readily visible. The church was important in organizing its members and assisting fugitive slaves. Noah West’s headstone (see previous blog) was pushed off its base and debris covered the stone. I had to brush away debris to find it and take a picture.

Noah West

Noah West

Another cemetery I visited was a black cemetery where the parents of a bishop of Wilberforce University* are buried.

Arnett's grave site

However, just next to this one is a cemetery similar to the one Lionel Richie found. It bothered me to see how nobody cared to maintain the area.

Black Cemetery - overgrown

Black Cemetery close up of headstone

Black Cemetery close up of headstone

Although Richie was looking for a relative and I was not, I thought how, during these individuals’ times, they were important. Now, they are completely forgotten. Their relatives in the 21st century do not know about them, their activities or the importance of those activities. This is just like Richie not knowing how instrumental his great-grandfather was to African-Americans.

I think again about how we are but a speck of dust in the grand scheme of things. I guess it doesn’t matter what happens after I die. It is the now that should concern me. Have I lived up to my potential? Have I treated others fairly? With kindness? My “impact” shouldn’t be remembered on a head stone, but in the actions I take every day.

*Founded in 1856, Wilberforce University can trace its origin to a period of history before the Civil War, when the Ohio Underground Railroad was established as a means of escape for all those blacks who sought their freedom in the North from the yoke of slavery, one of the destination points of this railroad became Wilberforce University. As the Underground Railroad provided a route from physical bondage, the University was formed to provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance.¹

¹Wilberforce University, accessed March 13, 2011. http://www.wilberforce.edu/welcome/history.html.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 9:14 pm  Comments (2)  

Products from non-slave labor

National Historic Landmark sign for Coffin House

When I visited the Coffin House in Fountain City, Indiana, the sign signifying the house as a historical site stated that Levi Coffin sold in his store only goods NOT made by slave labor. With the 2010 unemployment situation in the United States, I wonder how many retailers would follow this type of example and not sell products from China?

The economic times in the 21st century are much different from the 19th century. We are now a global society. We depend upon imports and exports not just to and from China. We depend on trading our goods and services to a much wider audience than those in the 19th century. But what about moral and ethical principles in business? In ourselves?

As consumers, we are programmed to find the lowest cost on products. (Thank you Wal-Mart, K-Mart and others.) We have also become a disposable society. Sure, we recycle our newspapers and plastic bottles, but the newest cell phone on the market is obsolete before the year is over.

When I was at the unemployment office, I noticed just about everyone had a cell phone. Most had phones that could access the web, games, and a host of other applications. Granted we need to be able to be contacted, especially by potential employers. However, as I sat and waited for my turn, I began to wonder about the wages we are paid in the US, to buy the things we “must” have – cell phones, cars, etc. and how we feel the “hardship” of unemployment.

Then I started thinking about China – the human rights violations, their labor practices, the workers’ wages– pennies per day to our dollars per hour. But what drives manufacturing companies to look to lowering their costs on their products so they can complete in the marketplace? We do – the consumers.

Therefore, I guess it isn’t fair to ask the retailers not to buy products made from 21st century slave labor when we continue to demand lower prices on newer products. Then again, our demands need to change. It is a vicious circle, but just like the bonds that confined many Negroes to slavery in the 19th century, we need to change what we value.

Published in: on December 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm  Comments (1)  

United States’ slave trade

In the early days of our country, I thought most of the transatlantic trips of slave trading were made to the United States. However, the United States received only a fraction of the slaves.

…the United States imported only about 6 percent of the slaves…¹

but that still is over 600,000 Africans!

According to Bordewich, “During the entire span of the transatlantic slave trade, the vast majority of slaves, perhaps as much as 85 percent were taken to Brazil, the various European colonies in the Caribbean, and Spanish South America. The British colonies of North America and the United States imported only about 6 percent of the between ten and eleven million slaves that were brought from Africa. More than 40 percent of all slaves sold in North America were imported through Charleston, South Carolina.”¹

On the plantations the slaves were treated like tools. However, the manual labor they provided came at a price. “To return maximum value to their owners, slaves, like expensive tools, had to be properly maintained. They had to be fed, clothed, housed, and kept in work.”²

Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves - Library of Congress

Trying to stop the slave trade but the slave population continues to grow

In 1807, Jefferson signed in to law a bill that the 9th Congress passed – the Act to Prohibited the Importation of Slaves³ that would take effect
January 1, 1808. (Click here to read the document in text form.) “The total number of slaves swelled due to natural increase from just under 900,000 in 1800 to about 1.2 million in 1810, to slightly more than 2 million in 1830…and would double again by the outbreak of the Civil War.4

Even with the natural increase in slave population, there was little enforcement of the Act. According to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture website “Africans continued to be deported to the United States until 1860.”5 This website is extremely interesting which highlights essays, timelines as well as images, maps and events regarding the slave trade around the world.

¹Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005), 20.

²Ibid., 23.

³Paul Finkelman,  “Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves.” Schlager Group. accessed November 29, 2010. http://www.milestonedocuments.com/documents/view/act-to-prohibit-the-importation-of-slaves.

4 Bordewich, Bound for Canaan, 43.

5 New York Public Library, accessed November 29, 2010. http://abolition.nypl.org/.

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 11:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Amazing Grace and the slave scale

One of the best things about research is finding information about something you know, but didn’t know. While reading Bound for Canaan¹ I learned the song, “Amazing Grace” was written by Rev. John Newton (1725-1807), a reformed slave captain. Perhaps seeing the slaves lay “close to each other, like books upon a shelf…cramped, in irons for the most part” (p. 19) and God’s grace made him evaluate his ways (and livelihood) and finally view the slaves as human beings, not just as product. (For he was once blind but now can see…)

This song also makes me think about how the slaves sang negro spirituals – looking to God for salvation, praising his word. While searching on YouTube for an appropriate version, I came across ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister and world-renowned vocal artist, Wintley Phipps’ explanation and version of “Amazing Grace.” He explains that negro spirituals use the pentatonic scale (the five notes on the piano keyboard) – the black keys!

Here is Mr. Phipps’ YouTube version of “Amazing Grace.”²

And the lyrics to the song:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.³

¹Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005).

²“Wintley Phipps and Amazing Grace” [Video]. January 4, 2007, accessed November 27, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMF_24cQqT0.

³John Newton, Constitution Society, accessed November 29, 2010. http://www.constitution.org/col/amazing_grace.htm.

lay “close to each other, like books upon a shelf…cramped, are likewise in irons for the most part…
Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 3:41 pm  Comments (4)  

On The Underground Railroad poem

My research has led me in different directions, much like a map with different routes to take. On one of the “paths” I took during this journey, I found was a poem by Frances C. Taylor. This is from her book, The Trackless Trail Leads On.¹ Ms. Taylor writes about the Underground Railroad in Kennett Square, Chester county and surrounding communities in eastern Pennsylvania. Kennett Square “is the city known as the hub of the Underground Railroad activity in the important Chester county.”²

On The Underground Railroad

On and on in the dead of night
The weary slave seeks
Freedom through flight.
His clothes are tattered,
His feet are bare;
They bleed from frostbite.
Does no one care?

He follows the Star
With a hope that shines
As dark, through the night,
The trail he finds.
“The Underground Railroad”-
He’s heard its name
This railroad to freedom
Is not in vain.

“As God as my witness,
I’ll follow the Star
O’er the Underground Railroad
Though I know it’s far
To Canada’s shores.
But I’ll then be free
With manumission papers
Issued to me.

Many hands have guided
These weary feet
From station to station
May I repeat –
The conductors that guided me
Have been led by God
By a faith
That is free.”

The Underground Railroad continues to evoke imagery in many forms. Stories, family lore even poems like this one.

¹Frances C. Taylor,  The Trackless Trail Leads On, “On The Underground Railroad,” (Privately published, 1995.)

²James A. McGowan, Station master on the Underground Railroad: the life and letters of Thomas Garrett, accessed October 29, 2010. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2005.)

Published in: on October 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm  Comments (2)  

Freedom Center’s Free Press

Last month while perusing the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center‘s website for material to use in my thesis proposal, I came across their “newspaper”. It is more of a newsletter with some interesting articles and photographs, some from this century and some reaching back to the 1800s.

The article on Carl Westmoreland, senior historian is the person I spoke with last October. (See October 2009.) The subscription for the newsletter is free, as delivery is via your email as a PDF.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 5:27 pm  Comments (1)  

Attitudes of yesteryear and today

When I learned about the Underground Railroad back in the 1960s, I learned the sanitized version, or rather, the white man’s version published in history books. My understanding was that thousands of fugitive slaves used the Underground Railroad to make their escape. (In reality, only a small percentage of those escaping slavery used the Underground Railroad.) My older understanding continued with the notion that when slaves made it to “free” states, they were, for the most part, out of danger; that there was a magical line – namely, the state’s border – for those fugitive slaves looking for a safe haven.

Another misconception was that, if you were white, you were either for or against slavery. If you were an abolitionist, you helped as many blacks gain their freedom as you could. If you were for slavery, you tried to promote slavery in your state, or help kidnap blacks for the slave traders.

What I have found out is that pro-slavery groups and abolitionists were at opposite ends of the spectrum. But most people at that time thought these two groups were just radicals in their communities.  People in many parts of the “free” states knew about the issue of slavery, but had no real contact. The issue did not affect their lives. Sure, some had neighbors that helped the fugitive slaves, so they looked the other way and did not turn their neighbors in for breaking the law. (That was IF they knew their neighbors were involved with the Underground Railroad.)They simple did not want to get involved. Slavery was an issue that did not affect their immediate lives or families.

Sound familiar? I think about immigration or rather undocumented immigrants in the United States in the 21st century. In Indiana, I have been told, there are many undocumented immigrants working in the area. There are undocumented immigrant families that have children who grew up in the United States who consider themselves Americans. Families that have children enrolled at Indiana University South Bend. I am sure many of the instructors as well as administrators know of students that do not have the proper documentation or citizenship, but are those students or their families turned in? No. Most people look the other way because those undocumented immigrants are not criminals, not doing harm to others or property. They are nice people not causing trouble.

However, in Indiana we are not faced to the extent of those in the bordering states to Mexico with additional people taxing the already stretched budgets of hospitals, social services, etc. Currently, we (in Indiana) can afford to look the other way, ignore the growing situation because we can. Just like the people in the early 1800s could look the other way, and not get involved. They could, because slavery was not an issue that directly affected most of them.

I think the citizens in the southwestern states are more likely to have specific views for or against immigration of undocumented immigrants than I do living in Indiana and not Arizona.

Published in: on October 11, 2010 at 4:18 pm  Leave a Comment