Junius Rodriguez: Historian sifts facts on Underground Railroad

Historians in the News

One way to make history interesting is to provide visual clues to reinforce what is said or read.
Junius Rodriguez, associate professor of history at Eureka College, did just that during his recent lecture in Canton on "Liberty Lines: The Underground Railroad in Central Illinois."

Reaching into a small bag, he produced a chain to be worn about the neck of a slave. It was used to secure slaves, and often linked several of them together. This was done, Rodriguez said, to prevent them from escaping, as it was harder for a several slaves to try to slip away together than for one or two to disappear.

But Rodriguez cautioned the audience not to believe completely everything they saw.

A case in point was a painting by Charles T. Webber showing a family of blacks arriving at the home of white abolitionists in the winter.

First of all, Rodriguez noted it was unusual for entire families of slaves to run away together, as children would slow down the journey. Most of the runaways were young men.

Rodriguez also said it was unwise for slaves to run away during the winter, since their tracks would be more visible in the snow. Most would run away in the spring, summer, and late fall.

Thirdly, Rodriguez noted the picture showed the white abolitionists as being the most heroic figures, with the enslaved family taking an almost passive role. In fact, most of the runaway slaves played a major role in their self-emancipation. White abolitionists did help the runaways, but this was usually a spur of the moment occurrence.

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