The real underground railroad





You are a runaway slave in antebellum America. Your name, age, height, and defining characteristics — whipping scars or redbone skin, jutting tooth or missing toes — have been circulated in a newspaper ad that offers $150 for your return. You’ve crossed the treacherous border states and, so far, eluded slave catchers. But you can feel their breath, and as you cross into New England, you’ve heard tell of a law giving anyone with a badge not just the power but the obligation to arrest you....

That distorted image, scholars say, arose in large part because whites kept the most records about the effort. In that recorded history, “there’s a tendency to see runaway slaves as childlike, people who need to be taken care of. So you tend to get writings that position the experience in that way,” said Spencer Crew, a professor of history at George Mason University.

The idea of a largely white-led effort became all the more enshrined with the mushrooming of claims in historically white communities of newly discovered underground railroad sites in the last 60 years, during and since the civil rights movement....



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