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.