Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out which popular beliefs are myths (slave quilts, anyone?).

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A Meme Is Born

The Railroad has proven to be one of the most "enduring and popular threads in the fabric of America's national historical memory," as Blight rightly puts it. Since the end of the 19th century, many Americans -- especially in New England and the Midwest -- have either fabricated stories about the exploits of their ancestors or simply repeated tales they have heard. However, before we tackle those tales, it's worth looking at the origins of the term "Underground Railroad."

Various explanations exist for how it was coined. Tice Davids was a Kentucky slave who successfully escaped to Ohio in 1831, and the term "Underground Railroad" may have been coined based on his escape. His owner had been pursuing Davids but lost track of him in Ohio. It is said he claimed that Davids disappeared as if "the nigger must have gone off on an underground railroad," according to Blight. I love this story -- an account worthy of Richard Pryor -- but this seems unlikely, since rail lines barely existed at this time. 

Two other possibilities exist. One story from 1839 claims that a fugitive slave from Washington, D.C., was tortured and confessed that he had been sent north, where "the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston." If one checks the Liberator newspaper, however, the first time the term appears is on Oct. 11, 1839, in which an editorial by Hiram Wilson from Toronto called for the creation of "a great republican railroad … constructed from Mason and Dixon's to the Canada line, upon which fugitives from slavery might come pouring into this province." 

The actual phrase "Underground Railroad" first appeared in the Liberator on Oct. 14, 1842, a date that may be buttressed by those who assert that the abolitionist Charles T. Torrey coined the phrase in 1842. In any event, as David Blight states, the phrase did not become common until the mid-1840s.

Myth Battles Counter-Myth

The appeal of romance and fancy in stories of the Underground Railroad can be traced to the latter decades of the 19th century, when the South was winning the battle of popular memory over the meaning of the Civil War -- sending Lost Cause mythology deep into the national psyche and eventually helping to propel the Virginia-born racist Woodrow Wilson into the White House. In the face of a dominating Southern interpretation of the meaning of the Civil War, many white Northerners sought to preserve a heroic version of their past and found a useful tool in legends of the Underground Railroad. 

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Often well-meaning white people crafted "romantic adventure stories -- about themselves," as Blight puts it, stories that placed white "conductors" in heroic and romantic roles in the struggle for black freedom, stealing agency from supposedly helpless and nameless African Americans (who braved the real dangers), a counterpart to popular images of a saintly, erect Abraham Lincoln bequeathing freedom to passive, kneeling slaves. With the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876 -- often blamed on supposedly ignorant or corrupt black people -- the winning of freedom became a tale of noble, selfless white efforts on behalf of a downtrodden, faceless, nameless, "inferior" race.   

Much of contemporary misunderstanding and myth about the Underground Railroad originated with Wilbur Siebert's 1898 study. Siebert interviewed nearly everyone still living who had some memory related to the network and even traveled to Canada to interview former slaves who traced their own routes from the South to freedom.