Larry Gara's Liberty Line in Oswego County, New York, 1838-1854: A New Look at the Legend

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Larry Gara's Liberty Line in Oswego County, New York, 1838-1854: A New Look at the Legend

In 1961, Larry Gara published The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. It became the most influential book on the underground railroad since Wilbur Siebert's 1898 The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. In Gara's work, the author described what he called the "legend of the underground railroad." This legend, he wrote, emphasized "a well organized, highly secret system with large numbers of passengers, courageous and efficient operators, and the implication of extensive southern connections." The story highlighted the work of white northern agents, Gara argued, while it downplayed the importance of fugitives themselves in carrying out their own escapes. Before the Civil War, such books as William M. Mitchell's The Under-Ground Railroad (London, 1860) outlined the legend. In the late nineteenth century, abolitionist memoirs reinforced it.(2)

In contrast to the legend, Gara argued that the underground railroad was not, in fact, very well-organized or highly secret; it did not have as many passengers as either abolitionists or southern agitators claimed; northern white abolitionists were less important than the legend suggested; and, most importantly, fugitives themselves were the real heroes in this story. In his preface to the 1996 reprint, Gara noted that "were I to write the book again, I would give more recognition to the [white] abolitionists.... Yet it remains undeniable that the slaves themselves actually planned and carried out their runs for freedom." "Placing the fugitive slaves at the center of their struggle for freedom," he noted, "was the major contribution of The Liberty Line."(3)

Gara's critique of the underground railroad legend was intertwined with his reluctance to trust either white abolitionist memoirs or oral tradition. Before the Civil War, he argued, abolitionists lacked "objectivity and precision." After the war, they often exaggerated both the number and importance of people involved in the underground railroad. Even more problematical were those stories told by children or relatives of abolitionists. In a spirit of boosterism, communities too often claimed underground railroad associations, but these "seldom had any documentary basis."(4)

In summary, Gara suggested,

the characteristic outlines of the traditional version reveal that it is largely derived from postwar [white] abolitionist reminiscences. The abolitionists' accounts tended to neglect the role of the fugitive slaves themselves in the escape drama, gave the impression that all successful escapees were passengers on the mysterious line, and implied that the "railroad" was a nation-wide abolitionist organization which operated in secret. In reality, it is probable that fugitive slaves succeeded, if at all, mostly by their own efforts. Such help as they received came sometimes from abolitionists, sometimes from other groups, and was often casual and temporary. In the period of the slavery controversy the underground railroad was more important as a propaganda device than as an aid to the fleeing slave. Far from being secret, it was copiously and persistently publicized, and there is little valid evidence for the existence of a wide-spread underground conspiracy.(5)

Using sources related to Oswego County, New York, this essay will suggest that, while the legendary version of the underground railroad exaggerates (or omits) parts of the story, Gara's revisionist version does not give the whole picture, either. In fact, any attempt to generalize about the underground railroad nationally cannot account for its tremendous diversity over time and place. In order to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the underground railroad, we need to develop detailed studies of specific events and people in specific places. Only then can we begin to discover how these related to the larger whole. Gara generalized about the national operation of the underground railroad. …