Underground Railroad Free Press
News and views on the Underground Railroad • Volume XVI, no. 90, July 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 exposè on another episode of New York City bureaucratic dawdling on protecting one of the city’s few remaining Underground Railroad safe houses. Then Underground Railroad author Fergus Bordewich is up twice with his charged reproach of the city’s foot dragging, and his recent Wall Street Journal article on Underground Railroad myths. Next read a reprint of more Underground Railroad myths compiled by Henry Louis Gates and Free Press. Last, Deirdre Sinnott’s new Underground Railroad novel, The Third Mrs. Galloway, is reviewed.
❦ 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 operation, 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.
❦ Frederick Douglass Walking Tour Reopened
Lou Fields of Baltimore Black Heritage Tours is glad that enough people have been vaccinated to safely reopen the Frederick Douglass Walking Tour, long a public favorite. We’ve been on this tour and it’s excellent. Sign up for this or other of Lou’s tours at 443.983.7974 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us also mention that Lou was the winner of the Underground Railroad Free Press Prize for Leadership in 2015 and the NAACP Thurgood Marshall Legacy Award in 2020. Here in Maryland, we call Lou Mr. Maryland Underground Railroad.
❦ Harriet’s Family
We came across this photo of Harriet Tubman in 1887 when she was in her mid-sixties with her husband, Civil War veteran Nelson Davis, and their daughter Gertie. They were living in Auburn, New York.
Again: Developers and Bureaucrats Team Up to Stall Preservation
The following article was featured in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Gothamist, a news website operated by New York Public Radio. Reprinted with thanks and lightly edited for space.
Underground Railroad Historian: Losing Washington Heights House Would Be "Travesty"
When historial preservationists got word last November that a developer planned to tear down a Washington Heights house once owned by a 19th century abolitionist — a rare surviving structure with possible ties to the Underground Railroad — they asked the city to save it. But the Landmarks Preservation Commission swiftly turned them down.
The agency cited two main reasons: The stripped-down, permabrick-sided house scarcely resembled the elegant Italianate original — a plain fact that no one disputes, although Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says she and others can find the money to restore it to its former homespun glory. The second reason given was that the houseʼs use as a stop on the Underground Railroad was merely “speculative.”
Now comes Fergus Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan, a definitive work on the Underground Railroad, with a message for the Landmarks Preservation Commission: Not so fast. Bordewich has proffered a pointed statement in support of preserving the site, which reads in part, “At the very least, further historical study is urgently called for. Destruction of the surviving building would be a travesty, and an irreparable loss to a city which has a very poor record of preserving sites related to Black and abolitionist history.”
The Landmarks Preservation Commission fired back in an email to Gothamist: “LPC disagrees with Mr. Bordewich's characterization of the preservation of New York Cityʼs African American history. While more can and should be done, since its earliest years, the Commission has been designating places related to the cityʼs African American heritage. And it continues to advance designations related to New York Cityʼs long and varied African American history.”
The LPCʼs email cites the Harriet and Thomas Truesdell House in Brooklyn as an example of a property recently landmarked for its connection to abolitionists who are believed to have used their home as a refuge for those fleeing slavery. The Truesdell House is one of 17 landmarked sites related to abolitionism and Underground Railroad history in New York, out of more than 37,000 landmarked structures.
Bordewich pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal essay that the Underground Railroad tends to be “saturated with myth” and that claims about it should be carefully considered. But he insists that this is not the case with Dennis Harris, the white abolitionist minister who owned the two-story house between 1852 and 1854, and built a nearby dock for steamboats plying the Hudson River, a common route for escapees fleeing north. “Harrisʼs involvement in the Underground Railroad is well-documented,” Bordewich writes in his statement. “The comparative isolation of Harrisʼs Washington Heights properties argues for their utility as a protected, easily guarded waystation for fugitives who needed to be gotten quickly out of lower Manhattan.” In the Wall Street Journal essay, he adds that Harris is a sterling example of “a dynamic partnership between blacks both free and enslaved and whites.”
Bordewich Interview on Harris House
Gothamist reached Fergus Bordewich at his home in San Francisco, where heʼs working on a book about the Ku Klux Klan, and asked him to fill out the story of the Underground Railroad in New York. His remarks have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
GOTHAMIST: The current owner of 857 Riverside Drive is a development company with plans to knock it down and replace it with a 13-story residential tower, which they have the right to do. Why should the city Landmarks Preservation Commission protect it instead?
BORDEWICH: New York is a dynamic city. Always has been. It builds to tear down and then build another way. Iʼm from New York and I understand that. But the extremely scanty remains of Black history and the Black presence in New York are, frankly, an embarrassment. The Landmarks Preservation Commission should be embarrassed.
How active was the Underground Railroad in New York City in the mid-19th century?
The Underground Railroad was significant to New York in a very particular way. The city was hostile, generally speaking, to abolitionism. Nonetheless many, many, freedom seekers traveling north came through New York City. They moved up the coast on the Hudson River, all of them bending to points west and further north, and in some cases to New England. As a trans-shipment point, New York City was really significant. However, the atmosphere at that time and place was politically hostile to anti-slavery work and particularly to the Underground Railroad. So to be involved with it required an aggressive defiance of the law on behalf of assisting fugitives.
Why is documentation of that defiance hard to come by?
The Underground Railroad was actually quite open in upstate New York, especially west of Albany, where it wasn't very underground at all. But that was not true in the city, where it was not unknown but comparatively secret. That makes it harder to find evidence.
Is that also true for 857 Riverside Drive?
This is a rare and potentially important Underground Railroad related site. I'm choosing my words carefully because its use in the Underground Railroad is not yet proven. It's circumstantial but persuasive. The preservationists have made a very good case for the original owner, Dennis Harris. Itʼs a much better case than people in some other parts of the country have had to make in order to preserve buildings.
Why is Dennis Harris important to the story?
Primarily, itʼs that Dennis Harris was a significant figure in the Underground Railroad. He was not a casual participant but somebody clearly recognized in his time as risking his security, his reputation, and perhaps his safety to assist in underground activity. His activity in Lower Manhattan is documented.
But then he moved to Upper Manhattan in the 1850s and built this house. Thatʼs when documentation of his activity drops off.
But it is highly probable that a man who was so committed to abolition would have continued his engagement. It's particularly interesting and significant that his properties in Upper Manhattan are right on the Hudson River. Thatʼs important because a vast majority of freedom seekers who were coming north out of New York City were sent up the river in steamboats. They didn't walk all the way to Albany. People have that notion but it's a myth. They went by boat, which was much faster and much safer. You could be in Albany in a couple of hours on a steamboat and bypass the Hudson Valley, which on the whole was hostile to anti-slavery for political reasons. It was not a friendly region for African- Americans or for fugitive slaves. The main artery of the Underground Railroad was New York City to Albany. At least one steamboat company based in Albany was owned by abolitionists, and they were known to be ferrying people north from the city — there's documented evidence of that. Underground activists in the city would put fugitives on steamboats that had many African-American workers. Somebody with Harrisʼs kind of underground credentials, when he got to upper Manhattan, that would lend itself to his continued participation in this effort.
These are tantalizing bits of evidence but, as you say, circumstantial. Isnʼt that why you want more time for further research to be done, and why you think the house should at least be temporarily protected?
Even today, research into the activities of the Underground Railroad has barely scratched the surface. It's a myth that the underground was so secret that it's unknowable. That's not true. The Underground Railroad was a collaboration between Black and white Americans across the color line, which is one of its most significant fruits. It was a very radical and interesting movement and way ahead of its time. Those truths about it were deliberately suppressed during the long Jim Crow decades so the Underground Railroad became kind of a matter of folklore. There's much more research to be done, and that can be done.
Is that basically your message to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission?
The commission should be looking for ways to protect properties like this, not looking for ways to discard them. I think theyʼre abdicating their responsibility, frankly, and not for the first time.
It Wasn’t a Railroad and It Wasn’t Undergound
As Free Press has researched, the first known use of the term “Underground Railroad” was by a St. Louis newspaper in 1842 in describing how an escaping freedom seeker seemingly vanished as slave catchers were closing in. The term caught the public’s fancy just as actual railroads—the new high tech of the time—were revolutionizing transportation. Freedom seekers became referred to as “cargo,” friendly guides as “conductors,” and safe-houses as “depots.” The allegorical lingo quickly stuck, but all too well. Today it is not hard to find well-informed adults who take “Underground Railroad” literally, as a historical subterranean mechanical conveyance. An intelligent lawyer friend of ours in California thought exactly that. The current ten-part television series “The Underground Railroad,” following author Colson Whitehead’s fictional portrayal, has the enterprise as literally an underground railroad, resulting in some viewers believing what they see. In his recent Wall Street Journal article here, Fergus Bordewich tries to set things straight. Reprinted with the author’s permission.
No aspect of American history has been more saturated with myth than the Underground Railroad. Television viewers have been mesmerized, and perhaps shocked, by the 10-part series “The Underground Railroad” on Amazon Prime, based on Colson Whiteheadʼs 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the same name. Directed by Barry Jenkins, the series follows the odyssey of a young fugitive slave, Cora, through the grotesque cosmos of an America warped by antebellum slavery.
In an imaginative tour de force, the series and the novel render the metaphorical Underground Railroad as an actual railway, whose tunneled lines carry Cora on her flight from state to state. “The Underground Railroad” brilliantly reimagines the nation's disturbing past to portray often unacknowledged truths about race and slavery. As a representation of the Underground Railroad, however, it is fantasy, not history.
In the absence of adequate information about the Underground Railroad's real history, legends have flourished. For generations, tales of hidden tunnels, exotic hiding places, cryptic codes and secret maps abounded. These were usually the invention of white Americans who turned vague local stories into romantic sagas of kindly whites rescuing faceless blacks who were incapable of helping themselves.
In reality, from its beginnings in the early 19th century, the underground thrived by virtue of a dynamic partnership between blacks both free and enslaved and whites, first Quakers and later evangelical Christians and others. Black activists were most often motivated by a fierce desire to free family members or friends and by bitter personal knowledge of what the degradation of slavery meant. Whites were most commonly driven by a spiritual imperative that proclaimed slavery a sin that could be eradicated only by personal action.
In practice, the underground was a diverse, flexible, interlocking system that operated with surprising efficiency but without central control beyond the county or town level, spanning the free states from Maine to Iowa. As Isaac Beck, a station master in Ohio put it, “There was no regular organization, no constitution, no laws or agreement or rule except the ‘Golden Rule,ʼ and every man did what seemed right in his own eyes.” It may have facilitated the escape of as many as 70,000 freedom-seekers over the six decades before the Civil War, but that is no more than a rough estimate based on the surviving records.
The underground was, of course, never an actual railroad, although when “conductors” deemed it safe they might occasionally take advantage of trains to speed fugitivesʼ travel. (Harriet Tubman took at least some of her “passengers” to Grand Central Station in New York City and bought them tickets to Albany.) The term caught on as a metaphor in the 1840s as iron railroads expanded across the northern states and the language of railroading lent itself readily to what underground activists were already doing, dubbing guides as “conductors,” volunteers who offered shelter as “station masters” and wagons in which fugitives might be carried as “trains” or “cars.”
Although many today believe that coded songs transmitted directions for the northbound routes that freedom-seekers should follow, no documentation for such “map” songs exists. For instance, the song most closely associated with the Underground Railroad, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” was partly fabricated by an early-20th-century folklorist and then revised in the 1940s by the folk-singing group “The Weavers.”
Similarly, the now popular notion that quilts made by slaves contained secret “maps” to guide freedom-seekers on their flight dates only from the 1990s. Quilting historians have shown that most if not all the patterns alleged to compose the “maps” date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and incorporate patterns so complicated that they would have been of little help to fugitives making their way across hostile and unfamiliar territory.
It is also commonly assumed that most freedom-seekers were traveling vast distances from the Deep South to the free North and Canada. But the great majority came from just three states where information was readily available about northbound routes and sources of aid: Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia, all of which had lengthy borders with the free states (West Virginia only became a separate state in 1863). Almost none escaped from the Deep South. There were a few much-celebrated exceptions, but Cora, the heroine of “The Underground Railroad,” would probably never have made it out of Georgia.
Nor was the underground all that secret north of the border country. In New England, upstate New York and the upper Midwest, it was barely hidden at all. In the abolitionist hotbed of Syracuse, N.Y., stationmaster Rev. Jermain Loguen even advertised his home in local newspapers as the main underground station in the city. Abolitionist newspapers sometimes announced the arrival of freedom seekers, and local agents often kept tallies, some of which survive. William Still, the underground's leader in Philadelphia, for one, maintained a running account of the hundreds of fugitives his office assisted in the 1850s.
Why is the real history of the Underground Railroad so little known? A primary reason is that it was actively suppressed during the long years of Jim Crow, when Americans lost interest in the significance of a movement in which Blacks and whites worked together and which, in many areas, was organized by African-Americans such as Loguen and Still. Racial collaboration had no place in the triumphalist white narratives that dominated the post-Reconstruction “redemption” of the South from racial equality. Eventually, one of the most far-reaching grass-roots movements in the nation's history was turned into little more than a colorful folk- tale.
The myths may charm and thrill, but they do not help us to understand the realities of slavery or the real experiences of fugitives, much less the underground’s far-reaching political and moral significance. Beyond delivering thousands of men and women to freedom, it was the nation's first interracial mass movement that asserted the principle of personal, active responsibility for othersʼ human rights, as well as the first movement of large-scale civil disobedience since the American Revolution.
It was also a seedbed for American feminism, the first movement in which Black and white women were participants on an equal plane with men. As the early woman's rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it, “Woman is more fully identified with the slave than man can possibly be.” In all these respects, the Underground Railroad anticipated the great, transformative social movements of the 20th century.
The underground could not have succeeded as well as it did without trust, self-sacrifice and heroic collaboration between Blacks and whites. Both shared duties as conductors, station masters, local managers and fundraisers. And both shared risks that few other Americans were willing to undertake on behalf of their fellow human beings. The story of the underground has particular resonance today, challenging the desire of some Americans to discount the brutal historical toll of slavery and of others to see the nation's development as, fundamentally, a long tragedy of unrelieved racism.
If the disheartening history of slavery shows Americans at their worst, the history of the Underground Railroad shows them at their bravest and best. It vividly reminds us that our ancestors were capable of deep cooperation across the color line at a time when virulent racism was the pervasive norm. In our own era of sometimes acrid racial suspicions, we would do well to recall the legacy of risk-taking cooperation and mutual trust that they bequeathed to us.
More Underground Railroad Myths
The following article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Free Press and has been updated here. We thank Henry Louis Gates for some of the myths below. The rest are ours.
Myth: If it isn't documented, it wasn't on the Underground Railroad.
Fact: Documenting illegal activity was too dangerous, so fewer than four percent of site claims today have solid documentation. Knowledge rests mainly on stories handed down by families and property owners, though they often fade or become embellished over time.
Myth: Slaves hung coded quilts at windows or on fences to alert fugitives to local conditions.
Fact: This myth was entirely made up, then in the 1990s embellished by an anthropologist who later recanted it.
Myth: The Underground Railroad was a subterranean mechanical conveyance.
Fact: Though freedom seekers were occasionally transported by train, the term "underground railroad" is a figure of speech which first appeared in print in an 1842 St. Louis newspaper article. It is surprising how many American adults even today take the term literally.
Myth: The Underground Railroad was run by white abolitionists and Quakers.
Fact: They were involved and sincerely so but most escapes were unaided, and most of those who did provide aid were Black, either free or enslaved.
Myth: The Underground Railroad operated throughout the South.
Fact: Risk of flight was far too great for all but a smattering of coordinated help until one reached northern-most Virginia or Kentucky.
Myth: Most fugitives found sanctuary along the way in secret rooms in attics or cellars or in tunnels.
Fact: This fond image did happen but most fugitives travelled out of doors or, if sheltered at all, more likely were hidden in barns or other out-buildings.
Myth: The Underground Railroad enabled hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps a million or more, to escape bondage.
Fact: There are no convincing means of estimating the number of freedom seekers, or wether they were successful or not. Best guesses are in the very low six figures.
Myth: Entire families commonly escaped together.
Fact: This happened but seldom because of trouble that young children had on escapes. The most common freedom seeker was a young unmarried man going alone.
Book Review: “The Third Mrs. Galway”
Kaylie Jones Books and Akashic Books are delighted to announce the publication of the novel The Third Mrs. Galway by Deirdre Sinnott.
When the book begins, it’s 1835 and Utica, New York, is a city divided by a coordinated effort underway to destroy abolitionists’ plans to create a state-wide Anti-Slavery Society. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Helen has recently married Augustin Galway, a wealthy and much older pillar of the community who believes the best place for the formerly enslaved is in Liberia. Just as Helen is adapting to her new life, in her tool shed she finds a heavily pregnant Imari and her young son, both running from enslavement in Virginia. Legally she’s bound to turn them in but morally she cannot find it in herself to abide by the law.
Abolitionists arriving in Utica to found the New York State Anti-Slavery Society are accused by the local newspapers of being traitors to the Constitution, and everyone faces dangerous choices as they navigate this intensely heated personal and political landscape.
Author Deirdre Sinnott, a native of Utica and lifelong civil rights activist who has dedicated her life to fighting racism, is a community historian currently working on the Fort Stanwix Underground Railroad Project funded by the National Parks Service.
"In this eloquent debut, a diverse cast of characters embodies the political, class, and racial upheavals of its time and milieu, and does it all in living local color."
“Sinnott offers a rich history of the burgeoning abolitionist movement.”
“Potent . . . The book’s descriptions are brutal, urgent, and realistic . . . In the intricate, relationship-based historical novel The Third Mrs. Galway, characters question civil disobedience and abolitionism and also learn to be compassionate.”
“Utica-area native and local historian Sinnott’s deep knowledge of the abolition movement in upstate New York informs this nuanced portrayal of white ambivalence and anti-slavery activism.”