Quakers & the Underground Railroad: Humility Time

Here’s a real Quaker hero of the Underground Railroad. Lucretia Mott was not some postwar poseur.

Quakers & the Underground Railroad: Humility Time

“Myth, Reality & The Underground Railroad” is  a usefully humbling piece in the New York Times for Friends about the Underground Railroad: scholarly work shows that most runaways did it largely on their own, a great many whites exaggerated or invented their URR support after the Civil War, and that actual white URR activists were often valiant, but relatively few in number and were marginalized & vilified by both respectable folk & dangerous mobs.

Further, contrary to common Quaker legend, this marginalization was especially strong among Friends: the Quaker Establishment in all the branches was dead-set against it, visible supporters were often disowned or sidelined, and only after slavery was safely outlawed did a URR “pedigree” suddenly become widely fashionable among Quakers.

Yes, there were Quaker heroes of the URR. But my own researches, recounted in the book “Remaking Friends,”  confirms the more sobering, mainly non-heroic Times account.

Henry “Box” Brown, who managed his own escape from slavery in 1849, not via the “Underground” railroad, but by nailing himself into a box that rode a “real” (aboveground) train from Virginia to Philadelphia, where abolitionist supporters opened it up and helped him on his way.

<< The Underground Railroad did exist, but it was not nearly as formal, extensive or popular as [some early romanticized accounts] imagined. Post-bellum literature suggested that railroad “stations” could be found in every town and hamlet north of the Mason-Dixon line and that “men and women from every class, sect, and party” aided runaways. Yet abolitionists and their activities provoked widespread hostility in the decades leading up to the Civil War. . . . [Even among Friends!]

Thousands of slaves did, in fact, escape to the North between 1830 and 1860, and many of them benefited from the help of activists such as William Still, David Ruggles and Sydney Howard Gay during their journey. White and black reformers in frontier towns and east coast cities organized vigilance committees and other antislavery organizations to provide fugitives with financial and legal support as well as more covert (and frequently illegal) assistance. But these often ad hoc groups were not coordinated at the statewide or regional level, and many of them lasted only a short time.

Most fugitive slaves gained their freedom largely through their own efforts.

Veteran abolitionists, of course, had good reason to share their memories of the Underground Railroad. Some believed that by reminding Americans of the antebellum crusade against slavery they were bolstering the post-bellum campaign to protect the rights of freedpeople. But Underground Railroad tales could also be self-serving, a way for Northerners who had not participated in the antislavery movement to bask in the glory of the cause. >>

Read the full piece here.


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