Understanding the Underground Railroad: New research changes perceptions

The National Parks Service Network to Freedom held its third National Underground Railroad Summit in Indianapolis Sept. 16-19.

The highlight was the appearance of the dean of the nation’s Underground Railroad historians, Larry Gara, whose ground-breaking work, Liberty Line, published in 1961, changed our perception of the Underground Railroad.

The conference featured a number of different perspectives of what the Underground Railroad was and means to us today, and included many of the nation’s cutting edge Underground Railroad researchers.

Keynote speaker Keith Griffler, author of Frontline to Freedom, a study of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley, and chair of African-American studies at the University of Buffalo, urged attendees to look at the Underground Railroad within the full context of history. We need to understand what slavery was first, he said, and then we need to consider what followed: 100 years of racial oppression. He called the period, 40 years after the end of slavery, the “nadir” of the black experience in America.

Griffler also said that the perception that the Underground Railroad represented one of America’s finest hours in the struggle for liberty and justice is false.

“The Underground Railroad was a parting of the ways, of people leaving the United States to obtain their freedom,” he said. “It was not about people smuggling Americans out of the South, but of abolitionists smuggling Americans out of the North and sending them to Canada.”

The conference’s theme, “Paths to Telling the Underground Railroad Story: History, Teaching, and Technology,” was presented through 10 sessions with themes represented by panelists whose presentations related to each session’s theme.

The most provocative session was the opening panel on “Myths and Realities” that included challenges to some of the conclusions of Liberty Line followed by Gara’s response. The answers to the mysteries of the Underground Railroad have yet to be fully answered and need further scrutiny.

More provocative were presentations by Kate Clifford Larson, a Simmons College professor and author of the Harriet Tubman biography, Bound for the Promised Land, who debunked the myth of the Underground Railroad’s use of the lawn jockey, and Susan Cooke Soderberg, a Maryland researcher, who debunked the legend of the Underground Railroad’s use of quilts.

Soderberg discussed the three most prominent myths surrounding quilt usage:

• That they were a sign of a safe house
• That they were a map to freedom
• That they represented a coded message.

She stated emphatically that her extensive research found “no evidence of quilts being used” in the service of the Underground Railroad, a conclusion that touched a nerve in some. The story’s origin, she said, resulted from an interview that Hidden in Plain View author, Jacqueline Tobin, had with African American quilter Ozella Williams.

According to Williams, the quilts that were hung out to air served a secret purpose to assist passengers on the Underground Railroad. Not only did the patterns of the blocks carry messages, but the knotting, stitching, colors and fabrics provided information about escape routes and safe houses.

No documentation has been produced to support the story, Tobin said, which is based on oral tradition. She also pointed out that it did not make sense because the construction of quilts made them vulnerable to damage from damp weather, as the quilts were allegedly placed outside homes as guides.

Larson traced the origin of the use in the Underground Railroad of the lawn jockey, the familiar ornamental lantern-holding figure. The story’s popularity stemmed from a 1963 pamphlet, “The Legend of Jocko,” written by Earl Kroger, a Baltimore insurance agent.

The lawn jockey is alleged to symbolize a 12-year-old black boy named Jocko who held the horses of George Washington’s army near Trenton, N.J., when it crossed the Delaware River on Dec. 24, 1776. According to legend, Jocko froze to death and Washington had a statue erected outside Mount Vernon in his honor. Historian Charles Blockson added credibility to the story by including it in his 1975 book, Pennsylvania’s Black History.

However, Larson found no support for its use in the Underground Railroad nor for the story attributed to Washington, which she said is simply oral tradition.

In tracing the story of its use in the Underground Railroad, she went back to the 1951 book, Ohio’s Underground Railroad Mysteries, by historian Wilbur Siebert, who told the story of a lawn jockey used by the Piatt family in West Liberty, Ohio, to signal fugitive slaves that it was a safe house. What astonished Larson was that Siebert’s early research had turned up contradictory information that included an 1852 newspaper report and mention in an 1856 book that told of an incident during which the Piatt family actually tried to obstruct the movement of fugitive slaves trying to reach Canada.

A Piatt family descendent told Larson that the story of their lawn jockey, which remains on display at a museum now operated by them and often told by a family ancestor, was probably the source of the story used by Siebert. However, Larson’s research found that lawn jockeys were not manufactured until 1865, after the period of the Underground Railroad. Her conclusion was a cautionary message that sometimes people reinvent history to separate themselves from unpleasant past associations, like slavery.

Among notable speakers in the other panels was abolitionist scholar, John McKivigan, who presented a paper on John Brown and the aftermath of Harpers Ferry, showing how the five of his men who escaped the raid were able to use contacts afforded by the Underground Railroad to avoid arrest and prosecution. Another of the more intriguing panels was one that explored the uses of archaeology in investigating oral stories about the Underground Railroad, whose physical evidence has heretofore been lost to history.

A second keynote speaker, Margaret Washington, Cornell University professor and author of a new biography on Sojourner Truth, talked about Truth’s participation in the Underground Railroad.

The conference concluded with a reception at Eleutherian College in Lancaster, Ind. Founded in 1848, it was one of the first colleges to admit black students and a stronghold of the Underground Railroad. Today it is in development as a museum.

Tom Calarco is the author of The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region and People of the Underground Railroad. He has been writing articles about history, music, personalities, and the world of antiques for 25 years.