USING PRIMARY SOURCES: THE HISTORIANS' TOOLBOX
Researching the Underground Railroad
Where do we find evidence for a historical phenomenon that was, for the
most part, unwritten and sometimes even unspoken? As Louis Gottschalk stated
in Understanding History (1969):
"Most human affairs happen without leaving vestiges or records
of any kind behind them. The past, having happened, has perished with only
occasional traces. To begin with, although the absolute number of historical
writings is staggering, only a small part of what happened in the past
was ever observed.... And only a small part of what was observed in the
past was remembered by those who observed it; only a small part of what
was remembered was recorded; only a small part of what was recorded has
survived; only a small part of what has survived has come to historians
attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible;
only a part of what is credible has been grasped; and only a part of what
has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian."
Although there is a great deal that we will never understand about the
underground railroad, and although those involved in the effort were not
always interested in leaving written evidence of their activities, they
could not escape leaving footprints of their existence and activities in
all kinds of ways. Researchers of the underground railroad thus have access
to a rich "toolbox" of primary and secondary resources that can
help them learn about and interpret the Underground Railroad as a theme
in American history (and thus capitalized.) Locating names and ages in census
records, identifying buildings and land owners on contemporary maps, digging
out court cases from county archives, finding the original membership list
from an organization, and reading accounts of specific events in old newspapers
are all ways of finding evidence to support Underground Railroad legends
Because the Underground Railroad story encompasses a wide variety of
people, places, and events it is important to gather information from many
sources in order to grasp its complexity. Whatever the driving force for
research, Underground Railroad research often raises many unexpected and
exciting questions. It is important to remember that the right questions
remain more important than the right answers. The current task is not simply
to identify places where fugitive slaves stayed while en route to freedom,
but rather to find and interpret evidence of the complex story of slavery
and resistance in American history.
Casting a Wide Net
For researchers in the Washington DC area, the Library of Congress
has extensive material related to the Underground Railroad and the history
of American slavery and abolition. The Main Reading Room provides
access to tens of thousands of published books. Many fragile or unpublished
sources are available in the Rare Book and Special Collections reading
room. The Local History and Genealogy reading room is a treasure
chest of local and county histories, family genealogies, city directories,
published census records, references to unpublished collections and individual
biographies, and reference guides for researching genealogy and local history.
Both the Geography and Maps and Prints and Photograph divisions
are worth a visit, for many local, regional, and national maps and nineteenth-century
images are housed at the Library of Congress. The Periodicals reading
room provides access to many contemporary publications and nineteenth-century
newspapers from around the country. Those researching specific people, families,
institutions, or organizations may want to scour the Manuscript reading
room for information. Although the Folklore and Folklife reading
room does not contain a great deal of material directly related to the Underground
Railroad, it houses collections of 1930s WPA Federal Writers Project
interviews with ex-slaves and numerous books of African American folklore
and folksong. Although the Music division contains little about the
Underground Railroad, it has materials related to the music of the anti-slavery
movement in the early and mid-nineteenth century.
Make use of the numerous finding aids available in many of the reading
rooms. The African American Mosaic, a published guide to African
American research at the Library of Congress, is an extremely useful starting
point for Underground Railroad research, and is online at <http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/african/intro.html>.
While the reading rooms still use some card catalogs, most have access
to LOCIS, the librarys computerized catalogue system. Fortunately
for distant researchers, a good bit of the librarys collections are
available through Firstsearch, on the librarys website at <http://www.loc.gov>,
and at the gopher site MARVEL <marvel.loc.gov, port 70>. Before heading
to the Library of Congress, peruse the electronic catalogs from a remote
computer or call the telephone reference desk at (202) 707-5522 with specific
The National Archives contains all the decennial census
records that are available to the public --1790 to 1820. Most of the United
States Census records are indexed and available on microfilm in the Microform
room. Unfortunately, researchers will not flip to a page in the 1850 census
which lists "Underground Railroad" or "Fugitive Slave"
as John Does occupation. Although census records will not prove that
a person or site was involved in underground activities, they can be used
to document a persons name, age, sex, family relationships, boarders
and tenants, ethnicity and/or color, slave or free status, property value
(in slaves, land, and personal property), educational level, occupation,
proximate location to neighbors, and occasionally physical appearance. Military
and pension records are often useful in conducting genealogical research.
The Guide to the National Archives of the United States (1974) is
a good overview of the basic record groups available for research. The National
Archives has federal records centers in: Waltham, MA; Bayonne, NJ; Philadelphia,
PA; East Point, GA; Chicago, IL; Dayton, OH; Kansas City, MO; Fort Worth,
TX; Denver, CO; San Bruno, CA; Laguna Niguel, CA; Seattle, WA. Much of the
state-based material available at the National Archives is also available
at state archives and libraries.
State Archives often have large collections relating to the history
of the state, and frequently have many genealogical materials for particular
families. Many state and county courts donate their archives to state facilities,
as do businesses, institutions, schools, social organizations, and political
groups. Some tax and military records are housed in state archives, and
many of the best local maps and much local ephemera can be found here. Plantation
account books, southern factory records, and church membership lists are
sources for slaves' names often found in state archives. In some of those
sources, a last name is included and family relationships are detailed.
For a detailed listing of the information available for each census year
and specific considerations for researching nineteenth-century census records,
see the "General Guide to Sources" in National Register Bulletin
39: Researching a Historic Property and The Source (1997) and
the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives.
Local libraries often have many materials about community and
regional history and legend, as well as archives from local groups and organizations
and personal collections. Academic libraries often have more materials
about general history and particular topics, theories and studies, theses
and dissertations, and sometimes special collections.
Check museums and historical societies for any materials relating
to particular families, community involvement in slavery and the anti-slavery
movement, local organizations and societies, personal collections, local
and regional histories, unpublished manuscripts, periodicals and newspapers,
ephemera, and images. Many local agencies also have collections relating
to specific buildings and structures.
Using the Toolbox
Information and stories passed down through generations of families and
communities are central to our understanding of fugitive slave experiences
during the ante-bellum period. Oral tradition and folklore have played significant
roles in African American history and contribute a great deal to our understanding
of American culture and society. For decades - even centuries - historians
have debated the use of oral tradition and individual memory in understanding
the past. While some benevolent societies, vigilance committees, and prominent
individuals kept written records of their activities, the majority of people
involved in the Underground Railroad were not likely to leave paper trails
of their activities or identify their underground contacts. The aiding and
abetting of fugitive slaves in the United States during the nineteenth century
was, after all, a highly controversial and illegal activity, punishable
by fine, branding, incarceration, and enslavement. It is thus neither surprising
nor accidental that we lack consolidated and detailed written records about
the process. Oral tradition fills a great void in the largely unwritten
history of the Underground Railroad, and can contain valuable references
to names, dates, and locations, events, and connections which can be documented
in written primary and secondary sources.
As historian Donald Richie asserts, "oral history is as reliable
or unreliable as other research sources. No single piece of data of any
sort should be trusted completely, and all sources need to be tested against
other evidence." The task of the modern historian of the Underground
Railroad is not to toss these sources aside, but to document them with other
historical evidence and evaluate their usefulness and credibility on a case-by-case
basis. Documenting and interpreting the Underground Railroad at historic
sites involves many different methods and resources. Barbara Allen and Lynwood
Montells From Memory to History: Using Oral Sources in Local Historical
Research (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History,
1981) is an excellent introduction to the uses and abuses of oral tradition
for these purposes. David Kyvig and Myron Marty, Nearby History: Exploring
the Past Around You 2nd. ed. (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1996),
is an excellent introduction to conducting local history research and provides
detailed examples of how primary sources can be used creatively in historical
Autobiography and memoir
Fugitive slave narratives and ex-slave memoirs were an important form
of public education from the 1830s to the 1860s as escaped slaves working
with abolitionists began publishing dramatic accounts of escape from bondage.
These published accounts circulated widely and their authors were asked
to speak to the public at abolition meetings about their experiences. Some
historians have claimed that in addition to containing debatable and exaggerated
information, many of these narratives were edited, altered, or even written
by abolitionists for political purposes. These limitations do not disqualify
slave narratives as historical evidence. They simply suggest that historians
must use such documents with caution, and evaluate their reliability by
cross-referencing them with other primary sources. Slave narratives and
memoirs are an important part of the historical record that must undergo
the same rigorous evaluation as any other piece of evidence. Publication
does not guarantee authenticity, and most narratives do not reveal the process
of editing, selection, and revision which may have altered the information
in the text. When using these sources, it is therefore important to consider
the perspective and motivation of the author (if known) and find out as
much as possible about the history of the publication.
In the late nineteenth century, accounts of the Underground Railroad
were published primarily by elderly abolitionists or members of their families
to commemorate the efforts of abolitionists who helped fugitive slaves.
These memoirs also have their limitations, and many contain exaggerated
recollections. In many cases, however, aged abolitionists sought to create
a reliable record of their ante-bellum lives. "Using Memoirs to Write
Local History," an article in the November 1982 edition of History
News, is a good introduction to these resources.
Archeological resources are irreplaceable and non-renewable and evidence
about the Underground Railroad always will be some of the most fragile material
remains. The Underground Railroad, as a clandestine network, resulted in
limited traditional historical evidence. Wide and varied non-specialist
or public participation in archeological projects is very important, but
these projects must have professional archeological supervision. Archeological
investigation, conducted in coordination with oral history and primary document
research, will lead to a broader understanding of the Underground Railroad,
its related phenomena, and its operations throughout slave free states.
Since the widest range of places associated with the Underground Railroad
are likely to remain only as archeological resources, it is critical that
they be identified and evaluated according to their proper contextual relationships.
This approach also will provide information on significant historical cultural
landscapes. Use of resources for travel and subsistence, the varied creation
of "stations" as integral parts of communities, and free settlement
patterns are all examples of how cultural landscapes were transformed by
the systematic efforts to provide for escapes from slavery.
Understanding Underground Railroad history requires multi-level analyses
of such topics as plantations, free settlements, and maroon settlements.
This research will provide insight into the conditions that led to escape,
the lives of people following their escapes, and the social networks which
promoted and assisted escape. African American archeology over the past
30 years has significantly increased our knowledge of the lifeways and culture
history of African Americans, especially in undocumented early American
contexts. Theresa Singleton and Mark Bograd produced a comprehensive bibliography
of African American archeology in The Archeology of the African Diaspora
in the Americas [Guides to the Archeological Literature of the Immigrant
Experience in America, Number 2 (Society for Historical Archaeology), 1995.]
Local histories range from the commercially-produced slick-paper products
funded by community boosters to the very narrowly-focused history of a particular
congregation or business or club within a region. Their usefulness also
varies widely and their claims must be checked. These sources are usually
only jumping-off points for more thorough historical research and should
serve as complements, not substitutes, for other sources such as census
records, court papers, maps, and county documents. Researchers should be
critical in evaluating these sources, and take the authors perspective
and possible biases into consideration. Information about local histories
can be located by contacting your state archives and records management
office, state historic preservation office, and the American Association
of State and Local History. Researchers using the Library of Congress should
consult the United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress
(Baltimore: Magna Carta, 1975).
Scholarly Sources: books, articles, theses and dissertations, unpublished
Interpreting the Underground Railroad in a broad historical context is
often easier said than done. Many researchers and interpreters often lack
the time and staff to conduct in-depth research about the historical development
of an area, the sociology of local free black communities, or the development
of the American abolition movement. Fortunately, many scholars have published
books about these and many other subjects. After deciding on themes to include
in a historic context, it is very useful to head to a local university library
and scour the catalogues for scholarly books, dissertations and theses,
and journal articles about these subjects. See the bibliography at the end
of this booklet for an overview of scholarship on Underground Railroad themes.
County and Township Records
State and local archives often have collections of county records which
include wills, property ownership deeds, property transfers, household probate
inventories, bills of sale for slaves, emancipation and manumission registers,
slave registers for tax purposes, local and regional maps, legal documents
and court records, and insurance records. County and state tax records are
a wealth of information about the economic and geographical development
of an area, and often contain references to many different people, places,
City directories, almanacs, and gazetteers
As the yellow pages of the nineteenth century, city directories, almanacs,
and gazetteers are good sources for establishing historical context as well
as documenting factual information. Whereas federal censuses were taken
once a decade, directories were often published annually and updated their
information from year to year. Although limited because slaves, married
women, poor whites, and many southern free blacks are not generally included
in these mid-nineteenth century listings, these documents often list the
exact addresses of businesses and individuals, hotel occupants and boarders,
business and commercial advertisements, schedules for local trains, steamships,
and shipping companies, lists of local churches, associations, organizations,
and newspapers, postage rates and post office box locations, lists of local
politicians and officials, calendars, and city maps. Often, individuals
who cannot be clearly identified in census records can be traced in city
directories, and these listings are useful for pinpointing exact locations
of sites and individuals which can then be plotted on contemporary maps.
Many almanacs include important news from the previous year, and gazetteers
often contain sections detailing local history, economic and demographic
statistics, and social, economic, and political predictions.
The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of city directories
housed in its Microform and Main Reading Rooms. In addition, many state
and local archives keep local, regional, social, and business directories
in their collections. Check with your local librarian or historian to locate
these sources in your area, and remember to use them with caution; directories
often contain many omissions and errors and should be cross referenced with
other primary source materials.
Contemporary calendars were often published in gazetteers, directories,
and almanacs or in business advertisements. There are even some published
collections of nineteenth-century calendars which are useful for verifying
dates mentioned in Underground Railroad accounts and community, family,
and personal events. If no contemporary calendars are available, perpetual
calendars such as the one on page 103 of Graff and Barzun, The Modern
Researcher can be extrememly helpful in piecing together Underground
Images and Photographs
Although the number of images and certainly the number of photographs
directly related to the Underground Railroad is limited, researchers should
keep an eye out for any bit of visual information available from the period.
Be cautious about using paintings and illustrations done long afterward,
but they are not to be rejected, just identified as after the fact. Contemporary
woodcut illustrations, architectural sketches, drawings by journalists,
advertisements, logos, paintings, and pictures are all valuable pieces of
evidence in local historical research.
When interpreting a historic site or individual associated with the Underground
Railroad, it is important to incorporate any possible connections to people,
places, and events in foreign countries. Because fugitive slaves resettled
in foreign territories and were key figures in the mid-nineteenth century
international anti-slavery movement, researchers must often expand their
geographical lens and dig up information from foreign sources, especially
Peter Ripleys The Black Abolitionist Papers is an excellent
anthology of primary sources from black British, Canadian, and American
abolitionists during the ante-bellum period (1820-1865). The Public Records
Office in London contains legal papers relating to fugitive slave cases,
as well as sources which reflect connections between the British and American
anti-slavery movements. Patricia Kennedy and Janine Roys Tracing
Your Ancestors in Canada (Public Archives of Canada, 1984) is a good
guide for using Canadian resources. Although many documents are housed in
foreign repositories, some city directories, census abstracts, and newspapers
and periodicals are available in local libraries.
Records of anti-slavery societies, vigilance committees, benevolent
groups, and churches
While these sources sometimes provide information about specific cases,
they are often more useful for establishing historical context and locating
names, dates, and events which can be documented in other primary sources
and used to construct rich narratives about individuals and groups associated
with historic sites. In addition, because a good number of these societies
were organized and run by African Americans and women, membership lists
and meeting notes often provide documentation about individuals not clearly
identified in census records or city directories.
Many formal organizations such as the American Anti-Slavery Society,
the Society of Friends (Quakers), regional abolitionist groups such as the
Philadelphia Committee of Vigilance and New York Vigilance Committee, and
local womens anti-slavery groups published minutes of their meetings,
annual reports, and collections of propaganda materials. These sources can
often be found in local libraries and archival collections. Although lesser
known and sometimes more covert organizations and vigilance committees also
published some of their records, identifying and locating information from
these groups may take a bit more detective work in public and private collections.
It may be useful to ask individual churches and historical societies about
any such records in their collections.
Contemporary newspapers and periodicals
Just as in todays society, nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals
contain a wealth of information about day-to-day living conditions, historical
events, people and places, popular opinion, and major national and international
social issues. In the mid-nineteenth century, popular publications contain
a great deal of information, sometimes speculative, about fugitive slaves,
their accomplices, and general anti-slavery activities. Many abolitionist
presses published reports about fugitive slaves, including accounts of successful
and failed escape attempts, updates about legislation relating to slavery
and fugitive slaves, reports about regional enforcement of slave laws and
black codes, proceedings of anti-slavery meetings, and sometimes even reports
about the status of the Underground Railroad. Mainstream newspapers often
cited and sometimes re-interpreted these sources in their own publications,
and may contain references to names, dates, events, and locations mentioned
in fugitive and abolitionist accounts. In addition, printing establishments
which published anti-slavery material during the ante-bellum period were
often likely to have been actively connected to abolitionist activities.
Gathering information about materials published by various presses can often
lend insight into their role in local anti-slavery efforts.
American Newspapers, 1821-1936: A Union List of Files Available in
the United States and Canada (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1937) is a useful
guide for locating these sources. Many major newspapers such as the New
York Times have published indexes for information in some nineteenth
century editions, and some have separate listings for obituaries and biographical
information. Sources such as Lubomyr and Anna Wynars Encyclopedic
Dictionary of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals and Negro Periodicals
in the United States are useful as well, and researchers should check
listings for locally published periodicals from church groups, social clubs,
political organizations, and professional groups. Libraries and archives
often have collections of nineteenth-century local and regional newspapers
and periodicals on microfilm.
Legal Documents and Court Records
Although legendary accounts of the Underground Railroad imply that the
majority of fugitive slaves were able to reach and remain in free territories,
a great number of people who attempted to escape were captured and returned
to slavery, along with their assistants, who were frequently fined and sometimes
detained in jail. Local and appellate courts tried many cases relating to
fugitive slaves, and information can be obtained from the records of these
cases. More information may come from state penitentiaries where accomplices
were held, documents from local anti-slavery groups supporting these prisoners,
and newspaper accounts of legal events. Many collections of legal papers
also include descriptions of buildings and properties and specialized maps
recorded for real estate transactions or disputes.
Several sources which include information about cases related to the
Underground Railroad include Paul Finklemans Fugitive Slaves and
American Courts: the Pamphlet Literature (1988) and Slavery in the
Courtroom: An Annotated Bibliography of American Cases (1985), and Helen
Catteralls Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro
(1968). In addition, many legal records pertaining to fugitive slaves are
housed in local law libraries and archives.
Personal and family manuscript collections often include diaries, correspondence,
newspaper clippings, record books, photographs or images, and ephemera from
the period. Archived business and institutional files are more likely to
contain financial and legal documents, official correspondence, membership
lists, and institutional histories. Because libraries are not apt to have
collections conveniently catalogued under "Underground Railroad,"
it is useful to have the names of specific individuals before searching
through manuscript collections. Researchers of historic sites should pay
particular attention to family and organizational collections directly connected
to the site and comb these sources for any information related to slaves
and slavery, the anti-slavery movement, and nineteenth-century social and
political conditions. One of the most practical ways to locate personal
collections is through the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections,
a massive index of collections held throughout the nation. More and more,
lists of manuscripts appear on the internet by theme and by holding institution.
Contemporary nineteenth-century maps are important in research about
individual Underground Railroad sites. As noted before, successful escapes
from slavery depended on a wide variety of conditions. Geographical boundaries,
demographic information, specific addresses and property owners, locations
of abolitionist presses and societies, railroads, waterways, roads and trails,
the position of military posts, origins of advertisements for runaway slaves,
and the sites of landmark court cases and historical events can reveal connections
between people in different regions and lend great insight into how complicated
conditions shaped fugitives experiences and influenced locally organized
efforts to assist them. Because of this, it is important to know something
about nineteenth-century American geography in order to determine how particular
historic sites fit into the larger picture.
Researchers seeking to find routes have often used the accounts in Wilber
Siebert, slave memoirs, and those found in William Still's The Underground
Railroad (1872) in which fugitives who met with him in Philadelphia
related how they arrived there. This has meant that most primary destinations
described in print are near the office of a Vigilance Committee. It may
be that travel by river, bay and ocean has not been sufficiently appreciated.
Another strategy is to use the compiled accounts of runaway slave notices
edited and published in book form. Quite often, the masters of fugitive
slaves knew with some accuracy the direction in which runaways were headed
and described their likely means of escape in the advertisement. Boatmen
were very frequently cautioned in those advertisements against aiding runaways
and many slaves did, indeed, escape by water.
Different types of maps offer various sorts of clues about the past:
contemporary national maps of the United States, Canada, and Mexico often
show territorial, state, and local boundaries, natural features, and distances
between locations. Look for other historical clues on individual maps as
well, such as population figures (often divided into slave and free, by
state) and transportation routes (railways, steamship routes, stage roads).
Note how place names are spelled, as these sometimes changed throughout
City directories often include specially-made city maps in their annual
publications. Usually located at the beginning or end of the directory,
these maps are fairly reliable sources of city streets, public buildings,
homes, businesses, and transportation routes.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, insurance companies began producing
fire insurance maps for home and business owners. The Sanborn company produced
these maps throughout the nation from the mid-1800s through 1950. While
most of these maps were drawn after the Underground Railroad ceased to operate,
they provide useful clues about building structures and dimensions, property
ownership, and neighborhood characteristics. Although Fire Insurance
Maps in the Library of Congress: Plans of North American Cities and Towns
Produced by the Sanborn Map Company (Washington, DC: Library of Congress,
1981) is specific to the Library of Congress, it is a helpful for finding
out what maps are available.
"Birds eye" maps of cities and towns are useful for getting
the "feel" for a large area at a certain time and for identifying
building characteristics, locations, neighborhoods, and spatial relationships.
These maps are often not-to-scale and are sometimes creatively adapted;
use them with caution, but use them.
Both African American slave spirituals and popular anti-slavery songs
are important elements of Underground Railroad legend and history. What
are the traditions and practices of music in West Africa which were incorporated
in North America ? Traditional interpretations of "the music of the
Underground Railroad" often focus of the use of slave spirituals as
covert communication. "Chariots a Coming" purportedly
announced the arrival of a "conductor" on the premises, "Good
News, Neighbor" was apparently used to report a fugitives safe
arrival in free territory, and the ever-popular "Follow the Drinking
Gourd" was supposedly an encrypted song which directed slaves, by way
of the North Star, along a particular route of the Underground Railroad.
Interpreting slave spirituals in this way, however, is tricky business.
Coded language is difficult or impossible to document, and while many slave
spirituals have a variety of interpretations, not every one referred to
fugitive slaves. The most recent scholarly interpretations about connections
between African American slave music and the Underground Railroad take these
complex factors into consideration. By concluding that the adaptation of
traditional music to current social conditions was a common practice in
American slave communities, researchers may understand that slave spirituals
may have been but were not necessarily used to relay information about fugitive
slaves and escape from slavery. African American slave music was, in historian
Lawrence Levines words, a "distinctive cultural form" which
was a vital part of slave life, society, and resistance.
Interpreting Underground Railroad Research
By creatively combining information from a variety of primary and secondary
sources, developing in-depth biographies and histories of people and sites,
and drawing conclusions about their relationship to surrounding areas and
nineteenth-century American history, researchers can shed light on these
and other questions. Responsible interpretations of the Underground Railroad
- Separate Underground Railroad myths and legends from historical facts
about the escapes and resettlement of fugitive slaves and the actual activities
of individuals and organizations.
- Document the factual elements of the Underground Railroad through primary
source materials and connect them to broader historical issues of slavery,
abolition, and American history.
- Evaluate the legendary elements of the Underground Railroad and consider
the history and value of oral narratives. What are the sources of local
legends? How can we use them to explore the differences and connections
between historical myth and historical reality?
Good historical interpretation - particularly of a complex issue like
the Underground Railroad - is grounded in careful, thoughtful research.
After researching a site and constructing an interpretation of its connection
to the Underground Railroad, researchers should double-check their sources
and have other researchers review the interpretations. In addition, it may
be useful to ask:
- Does the interpretation help the public better understand the multi-faceted
development, organization, and history of the Underground Railroad?
- Does the interpretation include information about the activities of
"ordinary" individuals and groups as well as popular or famous
- Does the interpretation present undocumented or debatable information
as historical fact?
- Does the interpretation reflect that both historical and legendary
information are elements of the history of the Underground Railroad?
- Are interpretations based on information from a variety of reliable
sources which reflect the complex nature of the Underground Railroad?
- Does the interpretation include historical information about the events
and conditions preceding and following escapes from slavery?
- Are contemporary political, economic, and social issues incorporated
into narratives of Underground Railroad activities?
- Does the interpretation reflect the influence of religion, African
cultural beliefs and practices, benevolent organizations, anti-slavery
societies and vigilance committees, community networks, and individual
efforts where appropriate?
- Have rich and well-documented biographies and histories been constructed
for sites and individuals included in the interpretation?
- Is the interpretation representative and inclusive of all individuals
significant to the story?
- Can the area, site, or person be connected to Underground Railroad
activities through primary sources?
- Does evidence about the area, site, or person make it more appropriate
for interpreting related issues of slavery and abolition and linking the
concept of the Underground Railroad to other themes in nineteenth-century
- Are music, literature, contemporary broadsides and propaganda, and
local legends researched and interpreted as part of the history of the
Underground Railroad? Can these sources be connected to the site, or are
they more appropriate for establishing a historic context for Underground
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