In doing more research on my local history book, I came across a second reference to the Underground Railroad in this particular town. The first refernce that I encountered was on a tour given by a respected researcher at the museum where I used to work. He claimed that one of the museum's houses had a small cubbord that was "probably" used to hide fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. This second reference was in a book, written in the 1970s, saying that the basement in a house on the opposite side of the river from the museum was used to help slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. I have a huge problem with these sorts of claims because they rest upon what people would like to believe about their past rather than what has been documented about the past.*
Each region has a melodramatic but heroic story that it likes to tell about itself, particularly in regard to race. For instance, growing up in the south, I was always told that the Civil War was fought by patriotic citizens defending their rights, Yankees were all rude damnyankees, and slaves were all happy. Maybe in another part of the region, another state, another county, or another plantation slaves were treated poorly, but not Here. As a friend of mine put it, "To hear my grandmother talk, Africans were running to the ships, building their own boats, swimming even, just to come over to South Carolina and be slaves on her ancestor's plantation because the slaves there were treated so well." My own grandmother prefers another argument. "Clio," she says, "You don't have to feel guilty about slavery. Your ancestors didn't own slaves."
When I first moved north, I learned that those "happy slaves" were all running away in droves with the help of the universally embraced abolitionists because everywhere seemed to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. Toward the mid-west, every town seemed to have been a childhood home of Abraham Lincoln and a stop on the Underground Railroad. Over toward the east, every town had been a First, visited by George Washington, and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
I was interested in these sites because, after many years of studying pro-slavery ideology and the conditions of slaves, I found information about active efforts to help individuals leave slavery rather refreshing. At the same time, being the scholar, I wondered at the seeming vast numbers of Underground Railroad sites that I kept encountering between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. Really, if every single town north of the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River was a stop on the Underground Railroad, if the northern states had that much traffic in fugitives, the southern states would have been emptied of their black populations by 1861. At that time, when I first encountered these sites, I knew only a little about the Underground Railroad. Serious scholarly study was just experiencing a revival on the subject, partly due to such common claims and to such reactions as my own.
Now, having studied several fugitives and the activity and ideas surrounding the opposition to slavery, I still wonder at the prevalence of these claims. Like the two alleged sites in the town I am writing about, most rest on the existence of a small closet, or a "hidden" room, or a "tunnel," or some other architectural feature that is more than easily explained as nineteenth century storage or post-Civil War construction. In one instance, at a documented Underground Railroad site, a small cubbord in one of the upstairs rooms was for many years explained as being the place where the slaves hid. This was quickly disproved when an enthusiastic tour guide asked a six-year-old on a tour to demonstrate by climbing in. The six-year old did not fit. In fact, most documents about the Underground Railroad do not describe hidey-holes like this. They describe the fugitives as either hiding in outbuildings, like barns or warehouses, or being passed off as a free black person.
What has happened at some level in these cases, I think, is that stories of the Underground Railroad were conflated with stories coming out of the Holocaust, such as those of Anne Frank or of "The Hiding Place." The same elements exist in both types of stories, and both are most commonly told through children's literature or historical sites. The white or gentile sympathizer smuggles the endangered fugitive or Jew into this tiny hiding place, thereby thwarting the slavecatcher or Nazi pursuers. Additionally, as the years pass, more communities and individuals claim sympathy with the oppressed characters than could have possibly existed at the time.
This is, at the moment, just an impressionistic hypothesis; but I think it probably bears investigating. When and where did these hiding place myths develop and proliferate? Is there actually a correlation between the Holocaust stories and the Underground Railroad stories? Most importantly, why do people insist on believing the more mythologized version rather than the more accurate version?