Looking locally at the Underground Railroad

It seems like we’re under­go­ing some reassess­ment in terms of the Under­ground Rail­road. A piece appear­ing in yesterday’s New York Times, “Myth, Real­ity and the Under­ground Rail­road” by Ethan J Kytle and Carl Geis­sert, tell one nar­ra­tive tells the story of one of the pri­mary myth-makers of the 1890s:

Although Siebert tem­pered some of his con­tem­po­raries’ hyper­bole, he nonethe­less took many Under­ground Rail­road sto­ries at face value. Undaunted by a dearth of ante­bel­lum doc­u­men­ta­tion — most rail­road activists had not kept records in order to pro­tect run­aways and them­selves — Siebert relied on the rem­i­nis­cences of “‘old time’ abo­li­tion­ists” to fill “the gaps in the real his­tory of the Under­ground Railroad.”

An arti­cle in last month’s Times explains that this story got the revi­sion­ist treat­ment in the 1960s:

That view largely held among schol­ars until 1961, when the his­to­rian Larry Gara pub­lished “The Lib­erty Line,” a slash­ing revi­sion­ist study that dis­missed the Under­ground Rail­road as a myth and argued that most fugi­tive slaves escaped at their own ini­tia­tive, with lit­tle help from orga­nized abo­li­tion­ists. Schol­ar­ship on the topic all but dried up, as his­to­ri­ans more gen­er­ally empha­sized the agency of African-Americans in claim­ing their own freedom.

That arti­cle focuses on Eric Foner, who’s just come out with a book that you might call a post-revisionist his­tory, based on some recently-uncovered doc­u­ments by little-known 19th-century abo­li­tion­ist edi­tor named Syd­ney Howard Gay. It’s on my to-read list. It’s nice to have some new doc­u­men­tary evi­dence, as it some­times seems the Under­ground Rail­road is the prover­bial blank slate upon which we project our con­tem­po­rary politics.

I’m cur­rently read­ing “Philadel­phia Quak­ers and the Anti­slav­ery Move­ment” by Brian Tem­ple, an ama­teur South Jer­sey his­to­rian. It’s a use­ful lens. There are a hand­ful of crazy cool sto­ries of white Quak­ers, but it’s clear that much of the Quaker involve­ment is point­ing run­aways to the near­est African Amer­i­can town. But that’s where it gets inter­est­ing for me. So many of these towns seem to be on land sold them by a white Quaker farmer; they’re just a mile or two from a Quaker town, down a quiet sec­ondary road where you can see any­one com­ing, along­side deep woods or marshes into which run­aways can eas­ily disappear.

It seems like one of the most impor­tant Quaker con­tri­bu­tion to the Under­ground Rail­road in South Jer­sey was par­tic­i­pat­ing in the found­ing of these towns: places where man­u­mit­ted and self-freed African Amer­i­cans could live in a self-governing and self-defensible community.

This raises lots of ques­tions. There was one promi­nent South Jer­sey African Amer­i­can Quaker but he was the excep­tion. And it’s often for­got­ten, but much of the source of Quak­ers’ wealth (the land they had to sell) was war and pre­vi­ous enslave­ment. But still, it seems like there might have been some­thing resem­bling repa­ra­tions going on here: forty acres and a mule and giv­ing the freed Africans the space to min­is­ter their own churches and gov­ern their own town. The his­toric black towns of South Jer­sey would make a great the­sis for some hard­work­ing grad student.

The racial pol­i­tics of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury have not been kind to these towns (Ta-Nehisi Coates could write a new chap­ter of Case for Repa­ra­tions based on them). High­ways plan­ners look­ing for routes close to the now-historic Quaker towns drew their lines right through the towns. Since most were never for­mally incor­po­rated, zon­ing and school board bat­tles with their sur­round­ing town­ship have taken away much of their auton­omy. Many have been swal­lowed whole by mid-century sprawl and towns in more rural areas have depop­u­lated. An old church is often the only vis­i­ble rem­nant and some­times there’s not even that.

My read­ing has stalled three-quarters of the way through Temple’s book and I’ve missed a few oppor­tu­ni­ties to see him present it locally. But I’ll try to fin­ish and give a more com­pre­hen­sive review in the near future.

A Methodist take on clearness committees

A Methodist take on clear­ness com­mit­tees:

Danny E Mor­ris tries out the Quaker prac­tice in his Methodist church: > The clear­ness com­mit­tee was intro­duced to our con­gre­ga­tion through a ser­mon on Com­mu­nion Sun­day. The his­tory of its ori­gin, the unique fea­tures that give it spir­i­tual power, and a step-by-step descrip­tion of the process were essen­tial ele­ments of the ini­tial introduction.

This is mostly an archive of writings 1998-2010