The Author’s Corner with Robert Churchill

The underground railroad and the geography of violenceRobert Churchill is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hartford. This interview is based on his new book, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Underground Railroad?

RC: When writing my first book on the militia movement, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face, I came across some abolitionist responses to the rendition of Anthony Burns from Boston that argued that the state militia, rather than assisting Burn’s master in carrying Burns back to slavery, should have used force to release Burns and protect his liberty. Once the book was done, I began to read about the Underground Railroad, a movement by which I had long been fascinated, but which I realized I knew little about. Clearly Underground activists dedicated themselves to defying the law, in some cases by armed force, in support of what they saw as the higher cause of human freedom. How, I wondered, did the inhabitants of the North respond to this movement? How did those responses change over time?

As I began to read primary accounts of Underground operations, it became clear to me that violence was at the center of this story. Fugitives from enslavement fled the systemic violence embedded in the system of slavery and in the South’s culture of honor, a particular culture of violence that I refer to as the violence of mastery. That violence followed fugitives into the North, wielded by slave catchers who asserted a right to use whatever violence they saw fit to capture fugitives, intimidate sympathetic bystanders, retaliate against Underground activists, and carry African-Americans back to slavery.

How then did Northern residents and communities respond to this violence, which many found shocking and culturally alienating? It seemed to me that understanding these responses offered insights into the way the Underground Railroad operated and also into the politics of the fugitive slave issue and into the growth of sectional alienation. And the more I looked, the more it became clear that those responses followed a clear geographical pattern.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Underground Railroad?

RC: The Underground Railroad argues that the movement operated within a cultural geography of violence in which different regions of the North offered very different responses to the presence of fugitives and to the intrusions of slave catchers. These regions exhibited different cultural norms governing violence, and Underground activists adapted their organization and methods to these norms.

JF: Why do we need to read The Underground Railroad?

RC: The book offers insights into two questions that have bedeviled historians. It explains the remarkable regional variation in the organization and operation of the Underground movement. Historians have long noted the discrepancy between stories of tightly organized, stealthy nocturnal operations in some times and places and accounts of a much more open, even boastful approach in others. My analysis of the geography of violence explains these variations across time and place, and illuminates the Underground Railroad as a living organism responding to local stimuli. The focus on violence also explains why the sectional conflict over fugitive slaves proved so explosive and alienating. Shared norms of violence are fundamental to building and a sense of community. In discovering just how different their norms governing violence were, the North and the South began to view each other as fundamentally different peoples.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RC: I have known since high school that I wanted to be a history teacher. History just made sense to me, and I realized from tutoring my peers that I could explain it to others in a way that made it comprehensible. After college, I enrolled in a Masters in Teaching program and received certification as a public secondary school teacher. I then joined the faculty of Longmeadow High School in Longmeadow, MA. After four years, I decided that I wanted the chance to engage history on a deeper level, so I returned to graduate school and received my Ph.D. in early American history from Rutgers University.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: The Underground Railroad describes a process of sectional alienation. This leads to a fundamental question: given that by 1860 both the North and the South had in essence given up on each other, why did the project of peaceful secession fail? This is a question that rarely gets addressed in the narrative of American history, in which war seems to follow naturally from secession. But clearly there were some, and perhaps many, in the North who were willing to contemplate parting with the South. What deprived this option of a hearing? And, given the South’s actions during the secession winter of 1860-1861, was peaceful secession in fact their objective? In answering these questions, I hope to undertake a much more complete assessment of Northern public opinion than has been offered up to now, and I hope to investigate where peaceful secession stood vs. the lure of a “short victorious war” in the preferences of Southern policy makers.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

The Faith of Harriet Tubman

Tubman

Colorado State University history professor Robert Gudmestad reflects on the Christian faith of Harriet Tubman. Here is a taste of his piece at “The Conversation”:

A horrific accident is believed to have brought Tubman closer to God and reinforced her Christian worldview. Sarah Bradford, a 19th-century writer who conducted interviews with Tubman and several of her associates, found the deep role faith played in her life.

When she was a teenager, Tubman happened to be at a dry goods store when an overseer was trying to capture an enslaved person who had left his slave labor camp without permission. The angry man threw a two-pound weight at the runaway but hit Tubman instead, crushing part of her skull. For two days she lingered between life and death.

The injury almost certainly gave her temporal lobe epilepsy. As a result, she would have splitting headaches, fall asleep without notice, even during conversations, and have dreamlike trances.

As Bradford documents, Tubman believed that her trances and visions were God’s revelation and evidence of his direct involvement in her life. One abolitionist told Bradford that Tubman “talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life.”

According to Larson, this confidence in providential guidance and protection helped make Tubman fearless. Standing only five feet tall, she had an air of authority that demanded respect.

Once Tubman told Bradford that when she was leading two “stout” men to freedom, she believed that “God told her to stop” and leave the road. She led the scared and reluctant men through an icy stream – and to freedom.

Harriet Tubman once said that slavery was “the next thing to hell.” She helped many transcend that hell.

Read the entire piece here.

The Huntington Library Acquires New Collections on Slavery

Huntington

Here is Pasadena Now:

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens announced today that it has acquired two collections related to abolition and slavery in 19th-century America, including an exceptionally rare account book from the Underground Railroad.

The first group of materials includes the papers of Zachariah Taylor Shugart (1805–1881), a Quaker abolitionist who operated an Underground Railroad stop at his farm in Cass County, Michigan. The centerpiece of the collection is an account ledger which contains the names of 137 men and women who passed through Shugart’s farm while trying to reach freedom in Canada; these names are recorded amid everyday details of Shugart’s business life, including the number of minks he trapped and the debts he was owed.

The second collection is the archive of some 2,000 letters and accounts documenting the history of the Dickinson & Shrewsbury saltworks, a major operation founded in 1808 in what is now Kanawha County, West Virginia. The records shed light on an industry that was not plantation-based but still relied heavily on slave labor.

“These new materials provide compelling windows into the lives of those who were enslaved and those who escaped slavery, and also shed light on the politics of the times before, during, and after the Civil War,” said Sandra Ludig Brooke, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington. “They are a vivid complement to The Huntington’s rich collections documenting American slavery, abolitionist movements, and the history of the American South.”

Read the rest here.

The African American Women of the Underground Railroad

Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the subject of a movie now showing throughout the country, was just one of many African American women who labored on the Underground Railroad.  Over at Process, historian Jazma Sutton explains:

This November, Focus Features will release the anticipated movie Harriet in theaters worldwide. In promoting the film, the company characterizes Harriet Tubman as “one of America’s greatest heroes.” The website further asserts that “her courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.” Kasi Lemmons, the film’s cowriter and director, in an interview addressing the film’s contemporary relevance, reminded the public how “important it is to remember what singular people were able to accomplish in turbulent times.” Undoubtedly, Harriet Tubman deserves credit, and her biopic is long overdue. But Harriet did not toil alone. Rather, her work as an Underground Railroad conductor was part of a national movement of free and enslaved black persons dedicated to the liberation and advancement of their race. Countless African American women, in addition to Harriet—young and old; free and enslaved; alone, pregnant, and with family; in the South, the North, and the Midwest—risked their lives to obtain freedom. Unfortunately, we know very little about the actions and sacrifices of other black women who liberated themselves or worked as assistants and operatives on the Underground Railroad. Who were these women? What motives did they have for escaping and aiding in the escape of others?

Surviving historical records suggest that several factors influenced African American women’s determination to flee slavery. These included the prospect of a better, more autonomous life; the threat or reality of family separation; the fear of being sold to the Deep South; and the hope of joining family members who had successfully escaped. Underground Railroad testimonies overwhelmingly describe African American women fleeing in the company of their children, husbands, and other family members. Their visions of freedom were inseparable from the responsibility they felt for family, especially their children. In the 1840s or 1850s, fifteen self-liberated people appeared at the Union Literary Institute (ULI), an integrated school established for the education of black students in the Greenville settlement of East Central Indiana, the region I study. The party consisted of a woman, her ten children, her son-in-law, a grandchild, and two others. The entire family was enslaved by one man and comprised his entire human property. When asked, “Were you not used well…why did you run away,” the mother responded, “My children were my master’s, and the mistress and the white children wanted us to be sold, and we thought it time to quit.” This particular woman appears to have eventually fled to Canada, but that was not the only promised land for African American women seeking freedom. Some chose to live permanently, or at least for extended periods, in free black communities on the Kentucky border; others preferred secluded communities in the rural Midwest, particularly because the threat of being captured was significantly lessened by the presence of cooperative Quakers. Still others chose remote or protected destinations convenient to them: Native American communities, the Great Dismal Swamp, and distant Mexico, for example.

Read the rest here.

Author’s Corner with W. Thomas Mainwaring

P03434.pngW. Thomas Mainwaring is chair of the Department of History at Washington and Jefferson College. This interview is based on his new book, Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania (University of Notre Dame, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I wrote Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania, because I was dissatisfied with the popular portrayal of the local Underground Railroad – a portrayal dominated by myths, legends, and hoary stereotypes. I wanted to write a scholarly study of the Underground Railroad based upon historical evidence and to establish the context in which the Underground Railroad emerged. I also wanted to bring to light discoveries that I had made about unknown individuals and networks, largely African Americans.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of  Abandoned Tracks?

WM: The argument of Abandoned Tracks is that the popular understanding of the Underground Railroad has long been dominated by myths and legends that fixate on subterranean hiding places and secrecy. It attempts to bridge the gap between popular perceptions and recent scholarship on the Underground Railroad.

JF: Why do we need to read Abandoned Tracks?

WM: I hope that Abandoned Tracks offers a good model of how to study abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in one locality. Abandoned Tracks is particularly relevant for studying the “border” North – areas that were contiguous to or near slaveholding states.

JF: When and why did you decide to become a historian?

WM: I decided to become an American historian when I took two junior seminars on the history of the American South. I was hooked!

JF: What is your next project?

WM: I would like to examine the causes of the American Revolution from a British perspective.

JF: Thanks, Tom!

The Underground Railroad Was a Metaphor

Was the Underground Railroad a secret set of underground tunnels used by slaves to flee to freedom? This is what I was taught in elementary school and high school. But as Matt Pinsker notes at the blog he set up for his Dickinson College Civil War course, the “Underground Railroad” is best understood as a metaphor or a “rhetorical device.”  Here is a taste of his post:


Even to begin a lesson by examining the two words “underground” and “railroad” helps provide a tighter chronological framework than usual with this topic. There could be no “underground railroad” until actual railroads became familiar to the American public–in other words, during the 1830s and 1840s. There had certainly been slave escapes before that period, but they were not described by any kind of railroad moniker. The phrase also highlights a specific geographic orientation. Antebellum railroads existed primarily in the North–home to about 70 percent of the nation’s 30,000 miles of track by 1860. Slaves fled in every direction of the compass, but the metaphor packed its greatest wallop in those communities closest to the nation’s whistle-stops.
Looking into the phrase “Underground Railroad” also suggests two essential questions: who coined the metaphor? And why would they want to compare and inextricably link a wide-ranging effort to support runaway slaves with an organized network of secret railroads?
Read the rest here.