When We Worked Together for a Just Cause the Underground Railroad Represented One of the Great Social Movements in History

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

When We Worked Together for a Just Cause the Underground Railroad Represented One of the Great Social Movements in History


CINCINNATI, Ohio

Lest we forget: The American Revolution was fought in the cause of freedom, but the battle for freedom did not end at Yorktown. And lest we think that the great monument to freedom is in Philadelphia, remember that another stands here, on the banks of the mighty Ohio River, and it contains a message for us as we approach the birthday of the Declaration of Independence and its all-men-are-created-equal credo.

That monument, sitting only 175 feet from the onetime slave state of Kentucky, is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and its riverside position is symbolic of how close slavery and freedom were, and are, and it is a reminder, for our time and for all time, that the struggle for freedom never really ends.

The transit from slave-state Kentucky to free-state Ohio seems like a simple journey, just as the movement from rights-for-some to rights-for-all seems like a simple progression. In truth, neither was easy or simple, though today we consider both logical, if not inevitable.

Some of the 19th-century transit came with the Underground Railroad, which was never a railroad and not always underground, but a powerful movement and metaphor.

By geography and history, Cincinnati was a natural locus for the Underground Railroad. The city was pro-slavery in an anti-slavery state. The fastest growing city in the steamboat era, it sat on the primary water route to the slave markets of the South, even as it was a natural destination for runaway slaves. Blacks here were free, though not free from fear.

The Underground Railroad - the term perhaps first surfaced in 1839, when a slave said he hoped to ride to freedom on a railroad that "went underground all the way to Boston" - had a vocabulary ("conductors") and a route map (sometimes bulkheads, sometimes trap doors, sometimes clandestine tunnels) all its own. The New York Times spoke of abolitionist societies owning "stock in the Underground Railroad, and [making] no bones of drumming up passengers for it."

This metaphorical railroad moved by secret signals, whispery passwords, even directions derived from the position of the stars. The brave defiance of the prevailing culture and, after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, of the law took place in root cellars and in wagons with false bottoms.

It was the precursor of the Great Migration of the 20th century, when descendants of slaves moved north in search of economic opportunity. And it required enormous daring. In his 1845 autobiography, Frederick Douglass spoke of being haunted by the notion that there was "at every ferry a guard, on every bridge a sentinel and in every wood a patrol of slave hunters."

But the Underground Railroad may not have been the organized network portrayed in film and folklore but instead, in the words of Eric Foner, the Columbia historian whose "Gateway to Freedom" is the most recent authoritative study, "an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time, but which together helped a substantial number of fugitives reach safety in the free states and Canada."

Even so, the obstacles to freedom - political, cultural, economic - were immense. Eleven of the first 15 presidents were slaveholders. The cotton trade, which sustained slavery in much of the South, was larger than the economic value of all other products of the United States economy combined.

Ironies abound. …

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