As the twentieth century came to an end, Americans grew increasingly interested in the history of the nineteenth. Civil War commemorations, re-enactments, books and films proliferated, depicting the nation’s traumatic division, as well as chronicling its redemptive narratives of suffering, heroism and, of course, freedom. The emancipation struggle, however, rested a bit uncertainly in this Civil War enthusiasm, sometimes ignored, often subordinated in a story that focused on battle. Yet the eagerness to understand national identity that has animated this attention to history cannot be separated from the American dilemma of race, with its roots in slavery and branches stretched across our own time. As the 1990s saw a doubling in the number of Civil War books published each year, it also witnessed an extraordinary flourishing of interest in the Underground Railroad, a phenomenon that in the course of the decade yielded two federal laws, state programs involving millions of dollars for preservation and memorialization, and activities in schools and communities across the nation.
Under the directive of the 1998 National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act, the National Park Service now manages a program designed to link state and local efforts into a “mosaic of community, regional and national stories” by certifying the authenticity of Underground Railroad sites and encouraging preservation and education programs. The Underground Railroad, the National Park Service proclaims, “bridged the divides of race, religion, sectional differences and…joined the American ideals of liberty and freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the extraordinary actions of ordinary men and women.” The Network to Freedom program emphasizes the “historical significance of the Underground Railroad in the eradication of slavery and the evolution of our national civil rights movement, and its relevance in fostering the spirit of racial harmony and national reconciliation.”
The assumptions and attractions of this history are clear and explicit. Ordinary people undertake acts of heroism motivated by our national principles. Their efforts are effective in diluting the stain of slavery. Blacks and whites work together in a spirit of racial harmony that remains an unrealized national ideal and a still-elusive reality more than a century later. Just as the Underground Railroad freed nineteenth-century slaves from bondage, so it can offer modern Americans a promise of freedom from –or at least an alternative to–the historical burden of racism and slavery. This is an inspirational story, one far easier to present in school curriculums and in popular commemoration than the divisive and complex experience of American slavery. The Underground Railroad speaks powerfully to what historian David Blight has called “our need to find an ennobling past.”
But we should be wary of a history built on need and desire. The present always uses the past for its own purposes, but the best historical writing attempts to contain that inescapable impulse in order to understand history in its own terms. The Underground Railroad has always made that difficult. It is a metaphor; it was never a railroad, nor was it under the ground. The term emerged in the 1830s to describe networks of support and communication assisting slaves escaping from bondage to the North and freedom. The imperatives of secrecy prevented extensive documentation of illegal and necessarily clandestine activities; romanticized memories exaggerated levels of formal organization, coherence and extensiveness; prevailing racial assumptions shaped recollection. By the end of the nineteenth century, a popular mythology of the Underground Railroad had arisen that celebrated altruistic whites serving as “conductors” for the benefit of largely passive black “passengers.” Legend claimed locations across the North as former “stations” on the Railroad, often with a hidden passage or room offered as definitive evidence for a site’s authenticity.