The National Park Service's Innovative Approach to the Underground Railroad

Roundup: Talking About History

Jennifer Barnett Reed, in the Arkansas Times (Feb. 27, 2004):

We all know the elementary-school stories of the Underground Railroad: tales of Harriet Tubman's daring trips south to lead more slaves to freedom, of kindly white Northern abolitionists hiding fugitives in concealed cellar rooms, ushering them down secret passageways toward freedom.

But those stories, it turns out, are only the pale, one-dimensional, mythologized version of who and what made up the Underground Railroad.

The truth is a much richer epic: giant, sprawling, ever-shifting, the unwritten histories of slaves who ran and slaves who stayed behind, free blacks in the North, Native Americans in the West, and otherwise ambivalent whites moved to single acts of assistance.

The Underground Railroad was vaster and less formal than the memoirs of conductors suggest. Its routes started in the South, ushering slaves north to free states and Canada, but also west to Indian Territory and California, south to Mexico and the Spanish colony of Florida, aboard New Orleans steamships bound for the Caribbean, and onto New England whalers headed for the frigid waters off the coast of Alaska.

The National Park Service has been trying to recover and preserve this larger story since the mid-1990s. Its Network to Freedom project redefines the Underground Railroad broadly as"resistance to slavery through escape and flight" - in short, anything slaves did or used to steal away to freedom - and recognizes it as the first major chain of events in the fight for civil rights.

"This project is different from anything else the Park Service has done," said James Hill, head of the Network to Freedom region that includes Arkansas."There's not a land base or any one particular site at this point."

The Network is set up like the National Register of Historic Places, Hill said. It includes sites connected with the Underground Railroad - homes, churches, even the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virginia - as well as educational programs and research facilities. There are over 125 so far in 25 states and the District of Columbia.

Ferreting out Underground Railroad sites has been easy in some Northern states (Ohio alone has 24 so far), Hill said. But they tell only part of the tale.

"To tell the story accurately you have to go down South, where people were leaving from," he said.

And that means Arkansas, where the Underground Railroad is a more elusive beast. A few histories of slavery in the state mention runaways, but no one's ever really sat down and studied the subject in detail.

Enter Charles Bolton, UALR professor and Arkansas history expert. Bolton has signed on with the National Park Service to do a three-year study of the state's fugitive slave phenomenon: how many and who they were, where they ran from and where they were headed, how they traveled and who might have helped them.

"Chances are [runaway slaves] were relying on other slaves and free blacks, instead of white abolitionists, in the South," Hill said."And the truth is, if it weren't for the desire for freedom of African-American slaves, there wouldn't have been any Underground Railroad."

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