This week I was alerted to a story about “Underground Railroad quilts.”
This is a subject that arises passions amongst historians because there has yet to be a single document written circa 1810-1865 mentioning these quilts from whites or free blacks involved in the assistance of people who were seeking their freedom. The best accounting for the activity of the Underground Railroad was written by operating agent, William Still. There are many mysteries surrounding the Underground Railroad.
Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that the Underground Railroad was literally a series of train tracks running under the ground from south to north. Let me say: This is not the case.
But an increasingly popular mythology of the operation of assisting enslaved people in their flight is this quilt story. I do not know why this has become so popular. Books have been written on the subject, children’s coloring and activity books are dedicated to this; but there simply is no evidence. Historians (and many buffs of historical events) gather information from the past through a variety of sources. Some of which include:
1. Letters/diaries/memorada/official government records created in a specific period of time
2. Memoirs by persons alive during a specific period of time but constructed in the aftermath of that time (an example is Still’s account)
5. Oral history
The earliest photographs I know of showing people fleeing slavery are taken during the American Civil War. Drawings in the form of engravings depict slaves fleeing an often included a stock character image of a man with a sack tied to a stick and facing to the right with his legs in a 2-D motion to illustrate the running.
So what is the problem with the myth of the Underground Railroad quilt? Simply put: It distorts the past while simultaneously denigrating the experiences of those people who were risk-takers and either attempted and failed or were successful in their escape from bondage.
Escape was complicated, dangerous, and many times failed. Examples of failures:
From August 15, 1861’s Richmond Daily Dispatch:
Hustings Court, Aug. 15.
–Aldermen Sanxay, Bray, Timberlake, Lipscombe and Anderson, presiding.
Mary Holmes, a negro woman, committed to jail as a runaway, four months since, was ordered to be sold, and the proceeds placed into the State Treasury, according to the provisions of the 19th section of the 105th chapter of the Code, nobody having laid claim to her. Geo. W. Stickney was qualified to celebrate marriage licenses in Virginia, according to the rites and ceremonies of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Rev. gentleman, who is Chaplain of a Louisiana Regiment, exercised the functions of his office on a loving couple last night.
From September 15, 1843: The [Memphis] Appeal
WAS committed to the Jail of Shelby county, Tenn., on the 13th of November, 1843, a negro man, who calls himself GEORGE, and says that he belongs to William Johnson, near Richmond, Virginia. George is quite black, 5 feet 6 1/2 inches high, about 35 years old, will weigh 150 lbs., he has four small raised scars about one inch long each running across his breast. The owner of said boy will will come forward, prove property, pay charges and take him away, or he will be dealt with as the law directs.
JNO. C. DOTY, Jailor.
From July 5, 1828 The Memphis Advocate
TO the Jail of Fayette County, State of Tennessee, on the 2d inst. a negro man who says his name is
and says he belongs to James Jones, near Nashville, in this State.
BILL is about Five feet 10 inches high, tolerable dark complexion, has lost some of his under teeth, long bushy hair, supposed to be about Fifty years of age. The owner is requested to come forward, prove property, pay charges, and take him away.
SAMUEL B. HARPER, Shff.
By JOEL L. JONES, Dept. Shff.
From August 30, 1839 The Memphis Enquirer
Jailor’s Notice—Shelby County.
WAS committed to this jail on the 15th August, a negro woman and child. The woman about 21 years of age, black complexion, calls her name EMALINE, and says she belongs to Wm. Coopwood of Fayette county, Tennessee. The child about one year old, named Virginia Elizabeth.
W.P. REEVES, Jailor
I want to share a section of William Green’s narrative published in 1853 to illustrate the challenge to getting out. William Green noted in his narrative “that it requires all the nerve and energy that a poor slave can bring to his support to enable him to make up his mind to leave in this precarious manner.” He and another slave had decided to escape from Maryland to Canada in 1840. When they got to a river, after being provided some assistance by other enslaved people, they were worried if they would be able to make it. They finally found a boat in some bushes and:
We put it in the creek and tried it, to see if it leaked, and found that it did not leak very bad, so we concluded to venture over in it. We had no paddle, only an oar to paddle across with, and a piece of a king crab’s shell for a cup to bail out the water. We put our small bundles in and bidding our friends a long farewell we started upon our perilous journey. The next day a man came into my cousin’s shop and said some one had stolen his boat the night before. My cousin was much surprised apparently, and wondered who could have taken it.
Before we found the boat we made up our minds if there were no other way that we would climb the bridge. We were well aware of the danger of such a scheme, but it seemed to be our only resource, as we never intended to return. However, we were Providentially provided for in another way. We went straight across and our friends staid on the bank until we were over, and then they went back and we were left alone. After we got over the river we had to walk for almost half a mile on the causeway. A causeway is a road built above the marsh; it is built of poles, dirt and sand; when the water is high it covers this road. Well, we walked in this water for about half a mile, and when we got through this we came to a very sandy road, which, after walking in the water, I felt was the beginning of sorrow. We continued our journey until we came to a friend’s house by the name of — –. I first thought I would give the name of this friend, but taking a second thought it occurred to me that he might still be following his holy calling of getting away poor souls out of the prison-house of bondage. If so, I say God bless him and his, in all his undertakings. He had been quite successful in helping away fugitives. He was not at home when we arrived there, and we concluded that we would not wait for him. We started on and walked for a long time; at last, fearing we had lost our way, we went back to our friend’s house. We had been looking for my uncle, and when we turned back we were almost there but did not know it. He very kindly went with us to my uncle’s and then left us, and I have never seen him since. My uncle was like the other friends afraid to venture to take us in his wagon, but he said he would walk with us, and show us the way, and he did so, for which we were thankful. So we continued our journey, with my uncle to guide us, until we came to a quaker friend’s house, about five miles from my uncle’s. He was sick and could not help us, but he sent us to another friend, hoping he would do something for us, but he said it was more than his life was worth to venture. He was then under heavy bonds to keep the peace. When we came to his house he came out to meet us, calling us his sons with such a gracious air that we could hardly believe our own eyes. To be addressed in this manner by a white man was something unusual for us. He took us into the house and gave us a good supper, which was the first good meal we had eaten for forty-eight hours. We arrived at his house in the afternoon of the day after we left home; we were now about forty miles from home. We had been charged to lay by in the day time, but on account of our not making as much head way the night before, we concluded that we would not stop. On, on, we went, and we as yet had met with no opposition from any one. So far we had not taken any rest since we left home.
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They were assisted by a Quaker, traveled through a small hamlet where they mortally wounded a dog who was barking at them at about 1:00 a.m., and with additional assistance from other blacks they moved forward. Some of the people who they encountered had a horse and the horse went missing temporarily but was recovered. Then the horse was:
harnessed…and [the man's wife whom they called Aunt Sarah] made a bed of blades and put a quilt in the bottom of the wagon, and we laid down and they covered us over with blades and he started, and we were so comfortable in our quarters that we fell asleep and had quite a refreshing nap. About day we arrived at Aunt Sarah’s as we called her; her husband was the person who got people on to the boat up to Philadelphia. We soon started for the boat, but when we got to the landing she was gone, and then our spirits sank within us. We felt that we had all our labor for nought, but the old man said that probably we might head them off about five miles down the river, so we started, but our disappointment did not help us in getting along; however when I saw the masts of the vessel my spirits revived again. We succeeded in reaching her, and our friend would not give us any satisfaction in respect to getting on board of the boat, however he told us he would see to that for us, so when we went on board we were his nephews, come down from Philadelphia to make him a visit. He says to us, “Boys, when shall you be down again?” We told him we could not tell him then, but to give our love to Aunt Sarah and tell her she must be sure to come and see us.
On board of the boat we fared very well; the Captain seemed to understand all. He and the old gentleman that brought us down to the boat seemed to be very well acquainted with each other. The hands seemed to be a little inquisitive, but he told them to attend to their own business and ask no questions. We were about two days going up to Philadelphia. We arrived there in safety, and remained in the city over night; in the morning we took the boat for New York.
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Instead of making up stories about slaves escaping, why don’t we examine and discuss those people who were successful and those who were not and explore the reasons for the successes and failures as best we can determine from the circumstances facing people who wanted to be free.