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Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad?

Maria Weems disguised as male /


Does the train to freedom tell the wrong tale about slavery? Popular tales of kindly white homeowners protecting anonymous blacks on the run does not tell the full story. History tells us that only about one percent of the four million enslaved Americans escaped during the Civil War, and mostly by other African Americans.





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Kids who come to see the Underground Railroad in Portland, Maine are often disappointed at first, says historian and peace activist Wells Staley-Mays. There is, of course, no railroad, and nothing runs underground -- not in Maine, nor at hundreds of proposed stops along a roughly defined network of escape routes for enslaved African Americans. Estimates vary widely. Between 30,000 and 300,000 blacks made the harrowing journey North or migrated West or South to Meixco from bondage in the 19th century.

"I tell them that 'underground' is a metaphor for 'illegal'," says Staley-Mays.

"We're going someplace illegal?" the kids ask. "Awesome!"

"Well, not exactly," the guide confesses.

Instead the students find themselves touring old homes and churches, poking into attics, outbuildings, and parking lots where buildings used to be.It's a hard concept to grasp. Nearly two centuries after the Underground

Esnalved man escapesRailroad occurred, historians in Northern New England still debate -- who, what, when, where and how. I attended one of those debates a few years ago at the Unitarian Church in Concord, NH. Sixty-seven attendees gladly traded a perfect Saturday for uncomfortable metal folding-chairs, fluorescent lights, and the chance to dig beneath the facts and legends of the underground railroad.

Portsmouth historian Valerie Cunningham opened the conference at 8:30 a.m.. In 30 years of exhaustive research on Portsmouth African-Americans, she has yet to document a single "safe" house in her hometown, she said. None of the 24 sites on her Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail are linked to the Underground Railroad, not yet. But now the federal government is getting on the black history train, offering grants and incentives to locate and promote Underground Railroad stops. Her curiosity about possible sites in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont led to this conference.

Keynote speaker John Ernest, now at the University of West Virginia, sounded a sharp alarm. As a professor of African-American Studies, he sees a danger here. In the rush to uncover historical "stations" and "conductors" along slave escape routes, he implies, we may be losing more than we gain.

The Underground Railroad can be "a comforting way of talking about slavery," John Ernest says, perhaps too comforting. "I am concerned that this is becoming the official way of acknowledging the past."

The dramatic escape stories too often document the kindly white saviors of faceless generic slaves, he says. There is an emphasis on architecture and white abolitionism, rather than on the enslaved figures themselves. Dramatic successful escape stories focus away from the horrors of the institution of slavery, a brutal system of human bondage built into American tradition, religion and law. Railroad stories tend to travel south to north, Ernest says, rather than north to south, back to the origins of slavery in this country.

The fact is, according to Prof. Ernest, that most of the enslaved people who escaped found their own way out. Like abolitionist Frederick Douglass, slaves often went "underground", or incognito, and simply took a train. Maria Weems, a well known success story of the Underground Railroad, escaped north by dressing up as a black jack, a male sailor, and taking a public train.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 
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