Shining Light On The Underground Railroad


In a review of Eric Foner’s new history of the Underground Railroad, Gateway to Freedom, Jennifer Schuessler reflects on the various ways scholars have understood the way slaves escaped north to freedom:

The first scholarly study of the Underground Railroad, published by Wilbur Siebert in 1898, named some 3,200 “agents,” virtually all of them white men, who presided over an elaborate network of fixed routes, illustrated with maps that looked much like those of an ordinary railroad. That view largely held among scholars until 1961, when the historian Larry Gara published “The Liberty Line,” a slashing revisionist study that dismissed the Underground Railroad as a myth and argued that most fugitive slaves escaped at their own initiative, with little help from organized abolitionists. Scholarship on the topic all but dried up, as historians more generally emphasized the agency of African-Americans in claiming their own freedom.

But over the past 15 years, aided by newly digitized records of obscure abolitionist newspapers and local archives, scholars have constructed a new picture of the Underground Railroad as a collection of loosely interlocking local networks of activists, both black and white, that waxed and waned over time but nevertheless helped a significant number reach freedom.

Wendy Smith notes that Foner “gets his detailed information about the workings of the underground railroad during this fraught period from two invaluable contemporary documents”:

The first is a Record of Fugitives compiled in 1855-56 by Sydney Howard Gay, white editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, who recounted the journeys of more than 200 runaways who passed through his Manhattan offices. The second is the journal of William Still, son of a fugitive slave and leader of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which played a vital role because of southern Pennsylvania’s proximity to Delaware, Virginia and Maryland, sources of most fugitive slaves.

Using these documents and others, Foner puts names and faces to activists less famous than Harriet Tubman (who makes a brief appearance) but more important to the functioning of the underground railroad. While Tubman rescued some 70 slaves, Jermain W. Loguen of Syracuse was credited with assisting 1,500 fugitives; Thomas Garrett, one of the many Quakers active in the underground railroad, helped more than 2,200 people cross the Delaware border to freedom.

(Image courtesy of Jeanine Michna-Bales, whose photography project Through Darkness to Light retraces the Underground Railroad)