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Friday, January 21, 2011

The Underground Railroad Didn't Run On Tracks (UGRR)


The Underground Railroad is abbreviated UGRR and the letters at the right are from The Anti-slavery Alphabet written for children and printed in 1847 for the Anti-Slavery Fair.  It is free for copying at Project Gutenberg with texts like:

A is an Abolitionist

A  man who wants to free

The wretched slave--and give to all

An equal liberty.

It also opens with a message "To Our Little Readers":

Listen, little children, all,
Listen to our earnest call:
You are very young, 'tis true,
But there's much that you can do. 

That same message ends with:
Thus each one may help to free
This fair land from slavery.

To quote Fergus M. Bordewich, the author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, "In an age when self-interest has been elevated in our culture to a public and political virtue, the Underground Railroad still has something to teach: that every individual, no matter how humble, can make a difference in the world, and that the importance of one's life lies not in money or celebrity, but in doing the right thing, even in silence or secrecy, and without reward.  This truth doesn't need to be encoded in fiction in order to be heard."

I definitely agree.  This attracted me to the woman I often portray, Liberetta Lerich Green.  She grew up on an UGRR station, was involved, along with her parents, in abolition and Civil War homefront efforts while her brothers fought in Michigan's "Fighting Fifth" Infantry.  Even in her later years as mother, farmer's wife, and later widow, this seemingly ordinary woman's life has much to teach us.  My website page, - Historical Programs tells more about my work. 
  • You may read Liberetta's own oral history to see a bit of what I'm talking about at Shelby Township Historical Committee's "The Beacon Tree. It was my starting point for research and manages to be entertaining and a window into the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century.
  •  For the mathematically or economically inclined, Liberetta mentions her parents as stationmasters equally shared with others running the UGRR, so their share of a fine of $100,000 against Warden Gilbert in Connecticut was $200 for feeding 2 runaways, a woman and a boy.  Similarly leading abolitionist, Thomas Garrett's fine in 1848 of $4500 was as if today he were fined $126,000.  He was able to reach a compromise settlement and a lien was put on his house until the fine was paid.  Friends helped him pay it and continue his iron and hardware business -- and helping runaway slaves to freedom.

  • At UGRR interactive maps see what southern states had runaways coming to MI, travelling to Canada.  (UGRR maps are almost all the same, but this site is a bit more interactive or you can click each level of routes to print -- HINT: print just page 1) 

  • For national views of the UGRR and a variety of resources, go to the National Freedom Center and also click on Slavery Today as there still is a worldwide problem unlike that faced by the UGRR of the 1800s.

  • The National Geographic site has an interactive UGRR section.  While there click on UGRR Lesson Plans for activity ideas even if you're a library or museum.  The interactive adventure mentions William Still.  

  • It doesn't mention that Still kept secret records of about 650 slaves he helped to freedom.  Project Gutenberg has a copy of that book.

  • There is so much musical material in the history of the UGRR, that you just need to Google "underground railroad songs" and take your pick!
  • More controversial is the idea of how quilts may have been used in the UGRR's work.  A very good history overview of the UGRR and look at the controversy may be found at Quilt History.
  • The Promised Land for anyone travelling the UGRR was Canada because Queen Victoria refused to enforce U.S. slavery laws.  I hope you get a chance to visit Dresden, Ontario in person, or at least online, to see the work of Josiah Henson, who did much more than be the inspiration for Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Anyone "riding" the UGRR rarely had the opportunity to ride, but the Lerich family hiding place actually was underground.  It reminds me of the woman visiting the library where I used to work in Mount Clemens.  She said she rode the Paris Metro and the New York subways and insisted she wanted to see and ride the Underground Railroad!

You know better, the Underground Railroad didn't ride on tracks, but it certainly was an important part of our history.

P.S. Scholastic Publishing just put up a variety of materials on the UGRR & I strongly recommend Myths of The Underground Railroad.  I too often tend to take for granted that people will know that these are not true.  A perfect example Liberetta makes is about how their nearest neighbors were both close friends and yet hoped to catch the Lerichs sheltering slaves so they could use the bounty to pay off their own farm's mortgage.