A REVIEW OF SOURCES
In popular works of history and fiction written about the Underground Railroad, there were often hair-breadth escapes and secret tunnels. Many books and articles were inspired by romantic legends collected as local narratives. These popular works varied in their reliability and a search for original sources is the best guarantee of accuracy. The most extensive collected primary sources of that era are found in Wilbur Siebert, The Underground Railway from Slavery to Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1898) and William Still, The Underground Railroad (reprint ed. Arno Press: New York, 1968/orig. ed. Phila., 1872). Siebert gathered documents and reminiscences from aged abolitionists or their descendants in the 1890s. Still, an active participant in the Philadelphia Underground Railroad, used his notes, correspondence, and memory after the Civil War to attempt to reconstruct each narrative for publication.
In the early- to mid-twentieth century, much of the research on fugitives from slavery and the history of slavery was the work of scholars such as Benjamin Quarles, W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson and Herbert Aptheker. It appeared in the Journal of Negro History which began publication in 1916 under the editorship of Carter G. Woodson and which often provided a venue for the publication of excellent scholarship on African American life in the decades before 1970 when the official American history journals were almost closed to that topic. A classic overview is John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans 7th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill Publishing Company, 1994.)
Although intended as a genealogical resource, Charles Blockson's Black Genealogy (reprint ed., Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1991) is also a valuable source for the Underground Railroad.
Works by Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South (New York: Vintage Press, 1956) and Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1959) saw slavery as harsh, and, in Elkins' case, as robbing the enslaved of a sense of self. These two books sparked a generation of research, beginning in the 1960s, which examined every aspect of the system of slavery and generally concluded that slavery, although deeply damaging to the African American, did not destroy the possibility of independent thought and action.
Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (reprint ed. 1996 Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996/orig. ed. Lex.,1961) is a serious attempt to separate the myth from the reality of the underground railroad. His first and last chapters are an account of exaggerated and romanticized texts and newspaper accounts and they are worth checking to avoid reliance on dubious and unsubstantiated texts.
Since Gara's book was written, the 1930s WPA oral histories of slavery and the fugitive slave memoirs of the late antebellum era (1830-1860) have been finecombed for references to runaways and the underground railroad. While the abolitionists were the primary publishers of slave narratives and memoirs, about one-half of the six thousand slave narratives were preserved by five other sources of publication: the court record, the popular or sensational journal, the church record, the independendent printer, and the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration. These collections are described in Marion Wilson Starling, The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History (Washington, D.C.:Howard University Press, 1988). A mass of testimony from ex-slaves, gathered by un- and under-employed writers working for the Federal Writers Project in the Works Project Administration during the 1930s, has been published in George Rawicks The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972). This multi-volume compilation of over 3,500 interviews with ex-slaves from 26 states was supplemented in 1981 by Donald Jacobs Index to The American Slave, a comprehensive finding aid which lists the volume and page number for slaves by name, state, and thematic subjects, including runaway slaves, the Underground Railroad, abolitionism, slave music and songs, and resistance to slavery. Many of the accounts of slavery and escape published since about 1970, such as John Blassingame's Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977) and George Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of a Black Community (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), have come from those sources.
Other useful sources for understanding slave memoirs are Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Slave's Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), R.J.M. Blackett, Beating Against the Barriers: Biographical Essays in Nineteenth-Century Afro-American History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), and Gilbert Osofsky, ed., Puttin' on Ole Massa (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1969). These editors note which fugitive memoirs were written by the fugitive, which were told to an editor or amanuensis, which were edited much later, which were entirely false, and which were changed substantially between one edition and the other.
Recent useful collections of slave narratives, letters, speeches, editorials and newspaper accounts are Peter C. Ripley, et al., eds. The Black Abolitionist Papers 5 vol. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985-93) and Charles Blockson, The Underground Railroad (New York: Prentice Hall, 1987).
An excellent place to begin the history of antislavery in North America is Merton Dillon, Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and their Allies, 1619-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1990). Overviews of the abolitionists may be found in James Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery and Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). The best summary of the philosophical development of antislavery in the Western tradition is David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).
The religious impulse in antislavery usually begins in the mid-eighteenth century with the Society of Friends (Quakers) in England and America who began to view slavery as an evil. Although they were not the only religious group to struggle against slavery, they became the best known. For an account of their spiritual journey, see Jean Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) and Hugh Barbour, et. al., Quaker Crosscurrents: Three Hundred Years of Friends in the New York Yearly Meeting (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995). Roger Bruns, ed., Am I Not a Man and a Brother? The Antislavery Crusade of Revolutionary America (New York: Chelsea House, 1977) contains a collection of the primary documents condemning colonial slavery from the Germantown Friends' Protest Against Slavery (1688) to the debate at the Constitutional Convention (1787).
The religious debate over slavery caused denominational divisions and the development of Biblical arguments for and against slavery. The rise of evangelical Protestantism at the same time as Enlightenment-based arguments for American independence and liberty are explored in such books as Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for The Institute of Early American History and Culture,1982). Three excellent books on the development of a black theology and cosmos rooted in both Christianity and slavery are Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution (New York: Oxford University Press. 1978); Mechal Sobel, Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979); and Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974). Denominational histories of American Protestantism recount the development of their theology over slavery and note the point in history at which they split into southern and northern sects over that issue. For an overview, see Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) and Samuel S. Hill, Jr. The South and the North in American Religion (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Useful overviews of the changing interpretations of slavery and of black life in the south include Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993); Peter Parish, Slavery: History and Historians. New York: Harper and Row, 1989. John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), argues that slaves were able to overcome many of the obstacles that were designed to keep them separate from each other and dependent on the masters, as does Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925. (New York: Vintage Books, 1976.) The creation and persistence of African American cultural identity is discussed in Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Thought from Slavery to Freedom New York, 1977, and Thomas Weber, Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831-1865.
For the operation of the underground railroad in the North, see Chapter 3 "Links to Bondage" in James Oliver Horton, Free People of Color: Inside the African-American Community (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993). For the black experience in Canada, see " A Bibliography Relating to African Canadian History " (rev. ed., 1990), compiled by Hilary Russell, Historical Research Branch, National Historic Sites Directorate, Parks Canada; Michael Wayne, "The Black Population of Canada West on the Eve of the American Civil War: A Reassessment Based on the Manuscript Census of 1861," Histoire Social/Social History 28/56 (November 1995); Allen P. Stouffer, The Light of Nature and the Law of God: Antislavery in Ontario, 1833-77 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1992.) Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queens, 1971) is a classic in the field and the recent Gary Collison, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) has much about Canada in its story of Minkins.
An excellent primary source is the multi-volume study entitled Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro. edited by Helen T. Catterall (Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1926-29). Catteral has abstracted all the court cases concerning slavery until 1866 and related cases until 1875. Many of these cases concern fugitive slaves and her abstract permits the reader to find and read the entire case. Since her work, other scholars have abstracted other aspects of the law and the slave codes. These are an excellent source for local research.
Slave insurrection or revolt was never successful in the United States and was often betrayed before it began. Herbert Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: International Publishers, 1943), is often criticized for his tendency to accept all evidence for slave revolt, but is massively comprehensive. Useful studies of organized rebellion include Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1993), Stephen Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), and Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1974). David Walker's Appeal, an angry and eloquent indictment of slavery by a black man whose writing influenced northern antislavery and prompted southern reaction, is available in several edited editions: Herbert Aptheker, ed. "One Continual Cry: David Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829-1830): Its Setting, Its Meaning. New York: Humanities Press, 1965 and, in the same year, Charles Wiltse, ed. David Walker, Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.) A recemt and very useful book is Peter Hinks, "To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren:" (State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).
During the Civil War, thousands of slaves left their homes for the Union lines. These "contraband," as they came to be known, sought work with the Union Army or attempted to pass through the lines to freedom on the the other side. Their story may be found in Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-67, Series II, The Black Military Experience (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
The local historian attempting to research the underground railroad in a particular region will find much useful information and a context for research in Carol Kammen, On Doing Local History: Reflections on What Local Historians Do, Why, and What it Means (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press for AASLH, 1986) and David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty, Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You (reprint ed. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1996). Beth Savage, ed., African American Historic Places (National Park Service: The Preservation Press, 1994) contains many examples of African American sites and a set of essays which place them in context.
For further suggestions about establishing a historical context for historic sites, see the National Register Bulletin No. 16b, How To Complete the National Register Multiple Property Documentation Form. In addition, there are several useful guides for researching historic properties, including Ann Derrys Guidelines for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning, National Register Bulletin No. 24 (Washington, DC: National Register of Historic Places, 1977) and National Register Bulletins Nos. 39 (Researching a Historic Property) and 32 (Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Properties Associated with Significant Persons). See also National Register Bulletin 16A How to Complete the National Register Form. This form provides guidelines on how to document historic properties for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. These bulletins are available from the NRHP/NRHE, 1849 C Street NW, NC400, Washington, D.C. 20240.
Genealogical techniques are extremely useful for creating rich biographies of fugitive slaves, slave-owners, Underground Railroad participants, and their family members and acquaintances. Many published guides offer valuable suggestions for tracing individuals in primary sources materials, including George Evertons The Handy Book for Genealogists (1991) and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (1997). Because men and women from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds were involved in Underground Railroad activities, researchers should be familiar with special techniques for locating African Americans, Native Americans, particular ethnic groups, and women in the historical record. Books such as Paula Byers African American Genealogy Sourcebook (1995) and Charles Blocksons Black Genealogy (1977) are excellent starting points for this type of research.
No real comprehensive overview of the literature on abolitionism, slavery, and the underground railroad is possible. The most useful approach may be to organize the publications into time periods. Memoirs of actual participants in these events and biographies by family members or fellow workers appeared from the 1860s through the 1890s. An invaluable source, they bear many of the characteristics of immediacy and partisanship. Studies of the abolitionist era published in the 1950s through the 1970s, and a few earlier, are useful biographies and institutional studies. For the most part, these studies place their theme within national political settings while the studies done since 1975 have a deeper grounding in social and cultural history. A selective list of some of the best of the old studies includes Alice Felt Tyler, Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1949, 1962); Aileen Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and his Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969); Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950); Lewis Filler, The Crusade Against Slavery, 1830-1860 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960); Benjamin Quarles, Allies For Freedom: Blacks and John Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974); Stephen B. Oates, To Purge this Land With Blood (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970).
Excellent work is being done currently and researachers should be aware of such books as Randolph Paul Runyon, Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996) and Stuart Seely Sprague, ed., His Promised Land: The Autobiogray of John P. Parker Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad (New York: Norton, 1996) for some of the activity on the Ohio-Kentucky border. Some of the best recent work on related topics includes John R. McKivigan, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches 1830-1865 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Roy E. Finkenbine, Michael F. Hembree, and Donald Yacovone, eds. Witness for Freedom: African-American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton and Company,1989); Peter Kolchin American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993); Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman,Antislavery Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Abolitionists (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979); Jean Fagan Yellin and John C. Van Horn, The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994); Ronald Walters, American Reformers, 1815-1860 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); Peter Ripley, et al. Witness for Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
Finally, an indispensable guide to the context of the Underground Railroad is the recently published National Park Service Handbook 156, The Underground Railroad.