The Underground Railroad in the Hudson River Valley: A Succinct Historical Composite

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: ABOLITIONISM, BLACK ABOLITIONISTS AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD - AN ADJUSTED VIEW OF "THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY"

In the antebellum period one of the most formidable challenges posed to the nation and the nefarious business in human chattel it protected under the guise of "private property," was that of abolitionism. It was a movement for the immediate and total dismantling of the institution of slavery. The challenge was made even more formidable because of the movement's involvement in the clandestine operations of one of slavery's effective nemesis, the Underground Railway. The operations were of the kind in which many participated but few took the time to fathom the meaning behind such operations beyond that of freedom. What, therefore, was the Underground Railroad?

On the one hand the Underground Railroad was really a moral challenge posed to a nation that defended an immoral institution. On the other hand, and in the words of one writer, the Underground Railroad was "not a route, but a net-work; not an organization, but a conspiracy of thousands of people banded together for the deliberate purpose of depriving their southern neighbors of their property [in defiance of the law]."(2) It was "like a ferment beneath the surface of southern society,"(3) and was at the core of the country's moral dilemma. So much so that as a formidable force it challenged an ignominious fugitive slave law, and eventually "brought on the Civil War" and the destruction of slavery.(4)

Who were those "thousands of people banded together" in a "conspiracy" against slavery? Adjacent to the Hudson River and its environs many of the morally committed were undoubtedly co-conspirators in the secretive operations of the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, because of some glitch in the historical methodology, our view of those "thousands of people" is as "through a glass darkly." The "legend" of the Underground Railroad that has come down to us has been more about "the bravery and dating of [the slave's] white abettors" than the enslaved.(5) In paraphrasing Larry Gara, the author of the book, The Liberty Line The legend of the Underground Railroad, one is left wondering if without those "white abettors" would many escaped slaves have successfully made their way to Canada and other points north?(6) For example, it is recorded that some fugitives were not even aware of a committed group referred to as abolitionists. "In 1841 Joseph Struge, a British abolitionist traveler, met a fugitive couple on a boat going from New York to Albany. They had escaped by railway and steamboat, carrying forged passes. Sturge learned that they had never head of the vigilance committees that existed "to facilitate the escape of runaway slaves."(7)

More contemporary, revisionist writers have cleared up "through a glass darkly" by, for one, dissipating the shroud of mist that obscured our view of the participatory role of free northern Blacks in the rescue of fugitive slaves. The writings of the revisionist historian Benjamin Quarles, in particular his seminal study Black Abolitionists, contributes to a sharpening of that participatory role; a role that formerly was relegated to the margins of history.(8) In the words of C. Vann Woodward these black abolitionists "[were] crowded off-stage by the [white] abolitionists."(9) And with respect to the legend of the Underground as a melodrama, and the usurpation of the center-stage position, Woodward wrote:

One very human thing the authors of the melodrama did was to seize the spotlight. They elected themselves the heroes. It was not that the abolitionists attempted to stage Othello without the princely Moor, but they did relegate the Moor to a subordinate role. The role assigned him was largely passive-that of the trembling, helpless fugitive completely dependent on his noble benefactors. The abolitionist was clearly the hero, and as Gerrit Smith, one of them, put it, the thing was bought off by the `Abolitionists and the Abolitionists only. …