Massachusetts Keeps a Slavery Myth Alive

Why hasn't the state removed an urban legend on its website relating to the Underground Railroad?

Furthermore, the slaves brought in during the Colonial period (before 1775) and between 1803 and 1808 came from all over Africa. Some were from the West Coast, some from East Africa and many from Central Africa. They spoke scores of different languages, practiced many different religions and had many, many different cultures. There were no “African symbols” that all of them shared. 

Finally if we are to believe this myth, we must assume a number of other things, most of which are nonsensical. 

First, we are supposed to believe that enslaved African Americans had the time to make elaborate, specific quilts, and also that they had the materials including the various colored cloth to make them. Then we must believe that once they made these quilts, they did not use them for warmth and comfort, but hung them outside for the occasional fugitive to see. 

Second, we are supposed to believe that these slaves, most of whom were illiterate, had no access to maps and had rarely traveled more than a few miles from their homes, possessed very specific knowledge of terrain, rivers and roads that would be useful to a slave who was from somewhere else, who was running past their home. 

Third, we are supposed to believe that only slaves (and sometimes sympathetic whites) knew about these symbols on the quilts, and that slave owners, local sheriffs and professional slave catchers had no knowledge of these quilts or what they meant.

Can anyone who thinks seriously about the difficulty of running away from slavery believe any of this? Of course not! But the Massachusetts Department of Education believed the myth, puts its prestigious imprimatur on it and still passes it off to students and teachers around the nation as nonfiction, by keeping the passage up on its website. Hopefully, the state of Massachusetts will remove this fairy tale story from its site and replace it with a public apology. 

The difficulty of escaping from slavery was huge. It took brains, guts and tremendous good luck to make it to the North. Let’s start teaching the truth about the brave slaves who ran away, the many free blacks and the occasional whites who helped them. While we are at it, let’s teach about the pro-slavery provisions of the U.S. Constitution, which required that fugitive slaves be “delivered up” to their owners.

Let’s teach about the two federal laws that put the power and might of the U.S. government at the beck and call of slave catchers. Let’s teach about the scores of blacks and whites in the North who were arrested and prosecuted by the federal government for helping fugitive slaves. Let’s teach about the handful of whites who went to jail in the South for helping fugitive slaves. 

But let’s stop telling fairy tales about quilts and secret codes and other nonsense that never happened.

Paul Finkelman, Ph.D., is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School in New York. He received his B.A. from Syracuse University and his Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Chicago. He has written numerous books and articles on slavery and the problem of fugitive slaves in American law.