CRM Journal

Book Review

Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory

Edited by David W. Blight. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, in association with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 2004; 337 pp., illustrations, bibliography, endnotes, index; cloth $39.95.


Passages to Freedom cover

The Smithsonian Institution and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center have given us an excellent study of the public history of America's collective behavior. American cultural  and social history communities differ on whether the Underground Railroad was resistance or rescue. Although they may use a common set of historical figures and documents, their expectations and needs color their collective memory.

Editor David W. Blight has assembled an anthology of essays from academic and public historians that look at the Underground Railroad as a metaphor and contact point for studying the impacts of slavery on American history and thought. The essays chart the shift from thinking about the Underground Railroad as a noble resistance movement of everyday Americans and devout Abolitionists to focus on the enslaved who had to choose, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass, between the life that may be lost and the liberty that may not be gained. They also consider the hold that authenticated and incorrectly "remembered" sites have on American collective memory, making this a valuable text for the classroom, as well as for the stewards of sites and historic houses.

Part 1, "Slavery and Abolition," begins with brief, but clearly written, histories of slavery and the slave trade in the Colonial and Federal eras. Ira Berlin's section on imported Africans in the port cultures brings attention to what he calls the Charter Generation, the skilled workers who were able to earn or purchase freedom and property. Deborah Gray White follows with her study of white power and black survival as those truths impacted all aspects of life. Her essay is based on slave narratives and both legal and financial documents of slavery—documents created under the assumption that people were property.

The section ends with James Brewer Stewart's study of Abolitionism, which is disturbing in its almost complete lack of discussion of the role of women. There were so many women in the movement, writing and representing "moral suasions" against slavery and gathering funds needed for publications and direct services, yet Stewart mentions only Prudence Crandall, the early-19th-century Connecticut educator and advocate, and even she is cited as a victim.

Part 2 retells stories of the true Underground Railroad. The essays are broad in scope, covering what was then the available territory of the United States. They emphasize the wide variety of escape and travel methods used, including the little known route south to Florida. Although these central essays are excellent, they seem to rely on similar narratives: Ellen Craft, who, along with her husband, had escaped to freedom disguised as a Spanish "gentleman" (her) and the gentleman's slave (him), shows up repeatedly in slightly differing references. These chapters focus on the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required active resistance from larger populations in the north. As if to parallel history and memory as equal partners in the book, each of the analyses of that truly evil act of Congress has a different emphasis. Part 2 ends with Bruce Levine's study of active resistance during the Civil War.

In part 3, "The Story Endures in History and Legend," Blight's own essay brings us a history of the historiography. He analyzes the methods used by the first Underground Railroad historian, Wilbur H. Siebert. While sympathizing with the popular fascination with the Underground Railroad, he points out that Siebert skewed (or allowed himself to be skewed in) his study by the Reconstructionist era's "tales of helpless black fugitives and their heroic white rescuers." Blight then directs the readers to revisionist historian Larry Gara and the research by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger on runaway slaves. By ending with a focus on the Railroad and cultural tourism, he prepares for the essays on place.

Jane Williamson writes about the Rokeby Museum, a national historic landmark and Quaker farm. Associated with this site are a 1905 novel and a family archive that tell contrasting versions of its role in the flight north. Milton C. Sennett discusses sites in New York state and the process that resulted in the Freedom Trail Commission "to aid municipalities and non-profit organizations in preserving structures associated with the Underground Railroad." He links the late 20th-century passion for the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights era and, from then, to the emphasis on multiculturalism in schools and social history in universities. Sennett brings us the enthusiasts, as well as the institutions, which are documenting New York State's historical figures and sites. Diane Miller follows with an essay on the development of the National Park Service Network to Freedom from disparate documented sites that range from slave markets to river crossings.

The final chapter, by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., connects the metaphor of the Underground Railroad with the metaphor of the Exodus in 19th-century communal history. Although it is odd that he treats that common "interpretive template" as a Christian religious narrative, he makes a compelling argument that the invocation of the Exodus in narrative and literature was a conscious appropriation. Glaude segues into a reference to the century of resegregation and Jim Crow that closes the book.

Passages to Freedom is a lavishly illustrated volume. The contemporary prints and photographs are excellent, and the designers' use of enlarged details from engravings is striking. One odd note was the inclusion of late Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias's illustrations from Uncle Tom's Cabin, which seemed overly grounded in fictional melodrama, as if to emphasize the hold of communal memory over history.

Despite the excellence of the studies, there are some deficiencies with the anthology. The authors ignore the performing arts as advocacy tool, including only two Jesse Hutchinson songs (one of which is cited only for its cover illustration). The Abolitionists used songs by the Hutchinson Family Singers, Mrs. E. A. Parkhurst, William Wells Brown, and their colleagues to spread their beliefs and to raise funds. Here too, the authors could have found more examples of women as Abolitionist activists.

As a study of the Underground Railroad, this book is a valuable addition to the library of any public historian or institution, although it should be paired with a revisionist study of Reconstruction. It serves as an impetus to thought and discussion on history and collective memory, inciting us to reconsider our ways of looking at the American past.

Barbara Cohen-Stratyner
New York Public Library