Underground Railroad Free Press

News and views on the Underground Railroad Volume XVI, no. 89, May 2021

Published bimonthly since 2006, we bring together organizations and people interested in the historical and the contemporary Underground Railroad. Free Press is the home of Lynx, the central registry of contemporary Underground Railroad organizations; Datebook, the community's event calendar; and the Free Press Prizes awarded annually for leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge, the community's highest honors. Please visit urrfreepress.com for more.

Following Brief Mentions below, this issue features an illustrated article on the recent long-sought discovery of Harriet Tubman’s birthplace, and a historian’s reminder that the current resurgence of schemes to rob votes of Americans of color isn’t new.

Brief Mentions

Free Press Prize Nominations Now Open

The annually awarded Free Press Prizes are regarded as the most esteemed honor bestowed in the international Underground Railroad community. The three prizes honor the most outstanding contributions to contemporary Underground Railroad work in leadership, preservation, and advancement of knowledge.  Our publicizing of prizes and winners promotes awareness and appreciation of Underground Railroad work to the general public, elected and other officials, governments, and key influencers. As the Underground Railroad was an international enterprise, prize eligibility extends to individual and organization nominees from any nation. For more on the prizes, past winners and how to nominate, visit http://urrfreepress.com/#Prizes.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Is Finalist for Best History Museum

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has been named as a finalist in the USA Today Readers’ Choice travel awards for best history museum. “We are honored to be recognized as one of the top history museums in the nation,” said Woody Keown, Jr., president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “The stories within our museum must be told and are vital to understanding our nation as it exists today. We’re excited that this nomination can help us spread these stories to even more people.”

Old Courthouse Into Network to Freedom

Owen Muelder, director of Galesburg College's Underground Railroad  Freedom Station, reports that the old courthouse of Knox County, Illinois, has been included in the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. The building served as the county courthouse until 1873 when it was decommissioned as the county seat was moved to Galesburg. It had been the site of a number of important trials and legal cases that drew attention to ongoing slavery in an ostensibly free northern state.

Muelder was the 2013 winner of the Underground Railroad Free Press Prize for Preservation for "preserving the history of the Illinois Underground Railroad, founding and leading Knox College's Underground Railroad Freedom Station, and serving the greater Underground Railroad community." 

Ohio Safehouse Into Network to Freedom

Fergus Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan, regarded as the definitive Underground Railroad  history, alerts us to Oviatt House of Richfield, Ohio, having been included in the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program in the program's most recent round of inductions. United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and United States Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff made the official announcement late last month to cap National Park Week. Free Press featured an article on Oviatt House in our March, 2021 issue.


In a Spectacular Find, Tubman Birthplace Is Discovered

With several biographies, plans to put her image on the $20 bill, two national monuments named for her, and her Underground Railroad exploits exceeding anyone else's, Harriet Tubman has become rightfully emblazoned in her nation's history. Probably no other Underground Railroad life has been as thoroughly revealed as hers, from her childhood and young adulthood in the tidewater flats of Maryland's Eastern Shore to her last days in the home for the elderly that she built in Auburn, New York. 

While the general area near Bucktown, Maryland, had been well researched as being where she came from, what remained a mystery was the location of her parents' home where she was born in 1822 and grew up. In March, archaeologist Julie Schablitsky of the Maryland State Highway Administration found the spot, which created a storm of major press coverage nationwide.

Some of the following account is extracted from Michael Ruane's article on the discovery in The Washington Post.

What Schablitsky and others had been looking for in a years-long search was the home of Ben Ross, Tubman's father, a free Black who had been manumitted and then purchased the freedom of his wife, Rit, though their children, because of the laws at the time, remained enslaved. Mr. Ross worked in the area as a lumberjack timber and foreman. Writes Ruane, "Her father was a devout patriarch who taught Tubman the ways of the marshy woodlands where they lived and struggled to keep his family together within the machinery of slavery," One of nine children, Araminta, nicknamed Minty, slept in a cradle made of a hollowed-out sweetgum log, and was hired out to work by the time she was six. Taught by her father, she checked muskrat traps, broke flax, hauled logs with a team of oxen that she was later permitted to purchase, and learned intimately the ways of people of the backwoods. 

For years, Schablitsky and others looked for the site of the Ross home, exploring various possibilities as to its location, all to no avail. The breakthrough came in 2020 when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service began surveying a 2,600-acre tract that it had purchased to replace land flooded by rising sea levels adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the area known to be where Tubman grew up. As reporter Michael Ruane described, "Refuge manager Marcia Pradines said she had heard that the Ben Ross cabin might have existed in the tract, and contacted Maryland experts to see if an archaeologist wanted to investigate. Schablitsky said she was interested and recognized the challenge of how to narrow down where to look and how to tell if a site might be that of the Ross home. 

"Old records provided a rough starting point. Last fall Schablitsky and her team went to the area and dug over 1,000 test pits. She had been afraid that numerous unrelated artifacts would turn up. But as they dug, nothing turned up. The area was often waterlogged, sometimes inaccessible, and most of what was being found was dripping wet mud Schablitsky said. In desperation, she started walking an old road with a metal detector. A knife sheath turned up, and a shotgun shell, and then something else." 

“I dug it out of the ground thinking I was going to get a shotgun shell. When I looked at the date, I couldn't believe it, It was totally a eureka moment,” she said of the 1808  Liberty gold coin she had uncovered. The coin was found about a quarter-mile from where the cabin would eventually be located, she said, but it “told us that we were on the right path, that we were getting closer.” The coin led to nearby findings of bricks, datable pieces of 19th-century pottery, a button, a drawer pull, and a pipe stem, all in one spot from one household. In March, chunks of brick, rusty nails, and ceramics with design patterns dating to the 1820s-1840s period turned up at what by then had become a full-fledged archeological dig. The Ross home site had been found.

Says Schablitsky, “A lot of us think we know everything about Harriet Tubman. This discovery tells us that we don't, and that we have the opportunity to understand her not just as an older woman who brought people to freedom, but what her younger years were like.” 

When Minty Ross married John Tubman in 1844, she began calling herself Harriet, her mother's name, and became Harriet Tubman. When she married Union war veteran Nelson Davis in 1869, she took his surname which appears on her tombstone, though the public continued to know her as Harriet Tubman.

The Ross home site will most likely eventually be put under the management of the nearby Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center in Church Creek, and perhaps become available to visitors.

Vote Robbing: An Old Scheme Rears Its Ugly Head Again

  • Blogger Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College, and author of six books on United States history and politics. She previously taught at MIT and co-hosted an NPR podcast. Richardson publishes "Letters from an American," a nightly blog on Substack.com that chronicles current events in the larger context of American history. She is Substack's most read author. Her most recent book is How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020).

    Lightly edited for brevity, the following two recent issues of her blog dissect the long historical precedents of attempts to curtail voting rights of Americans of color, beginning with Democrats in the 1850s and resurging with the Republican Party now. This longer-than-usual article for Free Press is important reading and well worth the time.

From March 26, 2021

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed his state’s new voter suppression law last night in a carefully staged photo op. As journalist Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, Kemp sat at a polished table, with six white men around him, under a painting of the Callaway Plantation on which more than 100 Black people had been enslaved. As the men bore witness to the signing, Representative Park Cannon, a Black female lawmaker, was arrested and dragged away from the governor’s office.

It was a scene that conjured up a lot of history.

Voting was on the table in March 1858, too. Then, the U.S. Senate fought over how the new territory of Kansas would be admitted to the Union. The majority of voters in the territory wanted it to be free, but a minority of proslavery Democrats had taken control of the territory’s government and written a constitution that would make human enslavement the fundamental law in the state. The fight over whether this minority, or the majority that wanted the territory free, would control Kansas burned back east, to Congress.

In the Senate, South Carolina Senator James Hammond, who rejected “as ridiculously absurd” the idea that “all men are born equal,” rose to speak on the subject. He defended the rule of the proslavery minority in Kansas, and told anti-slavery northerners how the world really worked. Hammond laid out a new vision for the United States of America.

He explained to his Senate colleagues just how wealthy the South’s system of human enslavement had made the region, then explained that the “harmonious … and prosperous” system worked precisely because a few wealthy men ruled over a larger class with “a low order of intellect and but little skill.” Hammond explained that in the South, those workers were Black slaves, but the North had such a class, too: they were “your whole hireling class of manual laborers.”

These distinctions had crucial political importance, he explained, “Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositaries of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than ‘an army with banners,’ and could combine, where would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided … by the quiet process of the ballot-box.”

Hammond believed the South's system must spread to Kansas and the West regardless of what settlers there wanted because it was the only acceptable way to organize society. Two years later, Hammond would be one of those working to establish the Confederate States of America, “founded,” in the words of their vice president, Alexander Stephens, upon the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth … that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln recognized that if Americans accepted the principle that some men were better than others, and permitted southern Democrats to spread that principle by dominating the government, they had lost democracy. "I should like to know, if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares [all] are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop?” he asked.

Led by Abraham Lincoln, Republicans rejected the slaveholders’ unequal view of the world as a radical reworking of the nation’s founding principles. They stood firm on the Declaration of Independence.

When southerners fought to destroy the government rather than accept the idea of human equality, Lincoln reminded Americans just how fragile our democracy is. At Gettysburg in November 1863, he rededicated the nation to the principles of the Declaration and called upon his audience “to be dedicated … to the great task remaining before us … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The United States defeated the Confederacy, outlawed human enslavement except as punishment for crime, declared Black Americans citizens, and in 1867, with the Military Reconstruction Act, began to establish impartial suffrage. The Military Reconstruction Act, wrote Maine politician James G. Blaine in 1893, “changed the political history of the United States.” 

From March 28, 2021

Since the Civil War, voter suppression in America has had a unique cast.

The Civil War brought two great innovations to the United States that would mix together to shape our politics from 1865 onward:

First, the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln created our first national system of taxation, including the income tax. For the first time in our history, having a say in society meant having a say in how other people’s money was spent.

Second, the Republicans gave Black Americans a say in society.

They added the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing human enslavement except as punishment for crime and, when white southerners refused to rebuild the southern states with their free Black neighbors, in March 1867 passed the Military Reconstruction Act. This landmark law permitted Black men in the South to vote for delegates to write new state constitutions. The new constitutions confirmed the right of Black men to vote.

Most former Confederates wanted no part of this new system. They tried to stop voters from ratifying the new constitutions by dressing up in white sheets as the ghosts of dead southern soldiers, terrorizing Black voters and the white men who were willing to rebuild the South on these new terms to keep them from the polls. They organized as the Ku Klux Klan, saying they were “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism” intended “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States… [and] to aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws.” But by this they meant the Constitution before the war and the Thirteenth Amendment: candidates for admission to the Ku Klux Klan had to oppose “Negro equality both social and political” and favor “a white man’s government.”

The bloody attempts of the Ku Klux Klan to suppress voting didn’t work. The new constitutions went into effect, and in 1868 the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union with Black male suffrage. In that year’s election, Georgia voters put 33 Black Georgians into the state’s general assembly, only to have the white legislators expel them on the grounds that the Georgia state constitution did not explicitly permit Black men to hold office.

The Republican Congress refused to seat Georgia’s representatives that year—that’s the “remanded to military occupation” you sometimes hear about-- and wrote the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution protecting the right of formerly enslaved people to vote and, by extension, to hold office. The amendment prohibits a state from denying the right of citizens to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

So white southerners determined to prevent Black participation in society turned to a new tactic. Rather than opposing Black voting on racial grounds—although they certainly did oppose Black rights on these grounds-- they complained that the new Black voters, fresh from their impoverished lives as slaves, were using their votes to redistribute wealth.

To illustrate their point, they turned to South Carolina, where between 1867 and 1876, a majority of South Carolina’s elected officials were African American. To rebuild the shattered state, the legislature levied new taxes on land, although before the war taxes had mostly fallen on the personal property owned by professionals, bankers, and merchants. The legislature then used state funds to build schools, hospitals, and other public services, and bought land for resale to settlers—usually freed people—at low prices.

White South Carolinians complained that members of the legislature, most of whom were professionals with property who had usually been free before the war, were lazy, ignorant field hands using public services to redistribute wealth.  

Fears of workers destroying society grew potent in early 1871, when American newspaper headlines blasted the story of the Paris Commune. From March through May, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, French Communards took control of Paris. Americans read stories of a workers’ government that seemed to attack civilization itself: burning buildings, killing politicians, corrupting women, and confiscating property. Americans worried that workers at home might have similar ideas: in italics, Scribner’s Monthly warned readers that “the interference of ignorant labor with politics is dangerous to society.”

Building on this fear, in May 1871, a so-called taxpayers’ convention met in Columbia, South Carolina. A reporter claimed that South Carolina was “a typical Southern state” victimized by lazy “semi-barbarian” Black voters who were electing leaders to redistribute wealth. “Upon these people not only political rights have been conferred, but they have absolute political supremacy,” he said. The New York Daily Tribune, which had previously championed Black rights, wrote “the most intelligent, the influential, the educated, the really useful men of the South, deprived of all political power, … [are] taxed and swindled … by the ignorant class, which only yesterday hoed the fields and served in the kitchen.”

The South Carolina Taxpayers’ Convention uncovered no misuse of state funds and disbanded with only a call for frugality in government, but it had embedded into politics the idea that Black voters were using the government to redistribute wealth. The South was “prostrate” under “Black rule,” reporters claimed. In the election of 1876, southern Democrats set out to “redeem” the South from this economic misrule by keeping Black Americans from the polls.

Over the next decades, white southerners worked to silence the voices of Black Americans in politics, and in 1890, fourteen southern congressmen wrote a book to explain to their northern colleagues why Democrats had to control the South. Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and its Results insisted that Black voters who had supported the Republicans after the Civil War had used their votes to pervert the government by using it to give themselves services paid for with white tax dollars.

Later that year, a new constitution in Mississippi started the process of making sure Black people could not vote by requiring educational tests, poll taxes, or a grandfather who had voted, effectively getting rid of Black voting.

Eight years later, there was still enough Black voting in North Carolina and enough class solidarity with poor whites that voters in Wilmington elected a coalition government of Black Republicans and white Populists. White Democrats agreed that the coalition had won fairly, but about 2,000 of them nonetheless armed themselves to “reform” the city government. They issued a “White Declaration of Independence” and said they would “never again be ruled, by men of African origin.” It was time, they said, “for the intelligent citizens of this community owning 95% of the property and paying taxes in proportion, to end the rule by Negroes.”

As they forced the elected officials out of office and took their places, the new Democratic mayor claimed “there was no intimidation used,” but as many as 300 African Americans died in the Wilmington coup.

The Civil War began the process of linking the political power of people of color to a redistribution of wealth, and this rhetoric has haunted us ever since. When Ronald Reagan talked about the “Welfare Queen (a Black woman who stole tax dollars through social services fraud), when tea partiers called our first Black president a “socialist,” when Trump voters claimed to be reacting to “economic anxiety,” they were calling on a long history. Today, Republicans talk about “election integrity,” but their end game is the same as that of the former Confederates after the war: to keep Black and Brown Americans away from the polls to make sure the government does not spend tax dollars on public services. (Emphasis added)

As I looked at the photograph of Governor Kemp signing that bill, I wondered just how much.