On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Dan Reed
Throughout American history, stories of the Underground Railroad have predominantly featured images of frightened fugitive slaves and kindly Quakers aiding their escape.
In the Washington region, historians are shining a light on some of the lesser known figures and institutions that played pivotal roles in the Underground Railroad. We examine the history of resistance in our region and the black churches and communities that shepherded enslaved people to freedom.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Cheryl LaRoche Author, "Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance"; @drcheryllaroche
- Jenny Masur Author, "Heroes of the Underground Railroad around Washington D.C."
DAN REEDI'm Dan Reed of Greater Greater Washington sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Later in the hour, how do we grapple with racism when it's written into law? We take a look at the modern day effects of redlining and restrictive deed covenants that kept people of color from moving in to certain neighborhoods in our region.
DAN REEDBut first, the Underground Railroad has long dominated American folklore with images of frightened fugitive slaves and kindly Quakers aiding in their escape. No longer, in the Washington region historians are shining a light on some of the lesser known figures and institutions that played pivotal roles in spiriting enslaved people to freedom. As black history month comes to a close, we take a look at the unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad right here in Washington. Joining us to discuss today are Cheryl LaRoche, a University of Maryland professor, archeologist, and author of "Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance." Thanks for being here.
CHERYL LAROCHEThank you for having me.
REEDAnd Jenny Masur, and anthropologist and author of "Heroes of the Underground Railroad around Washington D.C." Thanks for being here.
JENNY MASURI'm delighted to be here.
REEDCheryl, you wrote in your book that the Underground Railroad dwells in national imagination as a well-known yet poorly understood icon of American lore. What are some of the most common misconceptions about the Underground Railroad?
LAROCHEWell, probably the most common is that it was a railroad and that it went underground, and so just the name, the term, the literal understanding of that has been a huge misconception. Thinking that Quakers helped these poor frightened people without understanding that free blacks were major contributors to the Underground Railroad and to escape to freedom is another big misconception. We don't understand the role of women both as active helpers and conductors as well as people, who escaped from slavery, and that children often come out of slavery as well. So there are numerous. I could give you a long laundry list, but those are probably the first ones that come to mind.
REEDSo D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, while geographically very close, had very different relationships with slavery leading up to the Civil War. Could you describe how each was involved?
LAROCHEWell, the first thing we have to understand is that each had a different relationship first of all during slavery. Maryland is probably the state that does the least amount of understanding of what they're doing in slavery. Virginia we know much more about. Each of them end slavery differently. Maryland is a border state and so we have slavery throughout the Civil War.
LAROCHEBut I also think that when we look at what happens in Washington D.C., because the state legislators are here because the national statesmen are here, slavery is controlled very differently. So all of these things contribute to three very different experiences on the part of people who are both aiding and people who are resisting. Maryland, I would say, has had perhaps the most tortured relationship, because they don't -- we haven't done a great job of really understanding Maryland as a slave state in general.
REEDAnd your book focuses on both free and enslaved black people as the main actors in the Underground Railroad. Why is it that so many of these stories were erased?
LAROCHEBecause many of these communities have been erased and they are the free black communities that are helping people come out of slavery. Preservation law has been such that these places have not existed or did not survive. Many people in the black church, AME church, or the black Baptist church, this was an illegal and very dangerous undertaking. And many of the people in these churches do not begin to speak about their role until at least 50 years afterwards.
LAROCHEFor historians, now that's now after the fact evidence. So we have a number of things that are contributing to the misunderstanding and the kind of research that is required to uncover African American involvement in the Underground Railroad is tedious. It's difficult. It's painstaking. It's frustrating, and it's often discouraging. But the evidence is there.
LAROCHEAnd in the book I give a number of different ways to go about looking for the evidence because we literally have to make that history. We have to write that history. You cannot look in the back of a book in the index for it. It's not going to be there.
REEDWe've got a comment in our webpage from donor2001, "My ancestor was Jacob Leverton whose home was a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Our family had no idea until a cousin did some research and found quite a bit of info on him and his wife Hanna. I knew we had Quaker relatives, who lived on the eastern shore and was always curious since I knew the history of the area. But to find it confirmed was really very special." Jenny Masur, you recently published "Heroes of the Underground Railroad around Washington D.C." What inspired you to write this book about D.C. in particular?
MASURWell, I think people didn't expect that D.C. was a hub, a destination, and a beginning for the Underground Railroad. And I think that people don't realize the extent of the slavery and the situation of the free blacks in Washington. And Washington was well situated to be active in the Underground Railroad being on the Potomac and on the Chesapeake and having the C&O Canal as well as later having the railroad.
REEDYou mentioned in your book somebody named Leonard Grimes. Could you talk a little about him?
MASURWell, he's one of my favorite heroes. He was an African American, who was born in Leesburg. By the age of 12 he's recorded as being free. He came to work in Washington as a teenager. He ended up working for a slave owner and he must have had an exposure to the horrors of slavery, when he lived in Leesburg. But during the trips with the slave owner, he was exposed to a woman whose child was dying, but was being required to go to work and was being beaten. And at that point he stopped working for the slave owner and he took a savings and started a -- what was called a hack business, a carriage for rent.
MASURAnd that was a cover for Underground Railroad activities. He was caught between Leesburg and Washington. And on very flimsy evidence they convicted him of being involved in the Underground Railroad helping a woman named Patty and her children to escape. It was said that Patty and her children got to Canada successfully. And later in life Grimes admitted that he had been involved.
REEDThere is so many interesting stories like this from this time period and we don't always know about the local figures, who played a role in that. Another one of the stories that really caught my eye was Anne Maria Weems, who was an enslaved girl who dressed as boy to escape to Canada. Could you tell us about her?
LAROCHEWell, that's one of the stories that fits the classic mold, because she was supposedly mainly helped by a white man named Jacob Bigelow. But her story is part of family separation by sale of the owner and threatened sale south. And her father had gone to Jacob Bigelow and had also gone to New York and through a black network had raised money in England, a ransom fund, which bought Ann Maria's older sister and her mother. Now Ann Maria was waiting. Her other sister had escaped on the Underground Railroad and was in Geneva, New York and then ended up in England and later Jamaica with a famous -- somebody else, who was famous on the Underground Railroad and also was an active clergymen.
LAROCHEAnd Ann Maria was left waiting and waiting. And finally it was decided that she was of the age to be sent to New Orleans for sexual exploitation. So Bigelow felt forced to help her escape. And they came up -- they being the vigilance committees and Bigelow in Philadelphia and New York came up with the plan of dressing her as a boy. And luckily she hid out with Jacob Bigelow for six weeks while they were looking for her after the escape occurred. And they didn't realize that she would still be in the area.
REEDHow do you go about chronicling these lesser known histories? What does your research process look like?
LAROCHEWell, you know, I have a protocol. I do look at the places first. And then after I look at where people would have been whether it's a black community -- I'm working on waterways now, escape by waterways. So I'm looking along the water looking at these black communities. But they're not often really studied in the ways in which we need. I look inside black church histories. I look at these family histories. When you were just talking about Leverton and talking about the families -- so I use almost any kind of evidence.
LAROCHEI know Jenny has maybe a different set of criteria, because she works with the park service -- did work with the park service, excuse me. And I don't have to have that kind of -- I can speculate. I can take a look at some stories. Think about them and follow those different threads and just go down a path that perhaps a traditional historian might avoid, but generally I want to believe what I read until proven otherwise.
REEDI've got a call from Haley in Washington D.C. Haley, are you there?
REEDWelcome thanks for calling.
HALEYHi, Dan. Thank you so much and thank you to Ms. LaRoche and Ms. Masur for your remarks. I'm calling on behalf of the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle and we have an exhibition opening on Saturday March 2nd to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And we're opening a special exhibition on the Underground Railroad featuring selections from Jeanine Michna-Bale's "Through Darkness to Light" photographs along the Underground Railroad series. And there will also be a panel discussion on March 2nd on Saturday, which will feature the artist Jeanine along with other experts and moderated by our senior curator Elsa Smithgall.
REEDAnd that exhibit is running through May 12, right?
HALEYThat is correct.
REEDAwesome. Thanks for letting us know.
HALEYAll right. Thank you so much.
REEDSo, Jenny, how do you go about chronicling some of these stories? They sound like they're very hard to find.
MASURWell, you get a lot of help if you network. There are a lot of local historians and independent historians, who are working on their own in the counties in which they live or they are interested. And they know the history of the county very well and they don't necessarily know that what they know is relevant to the Underground Railroad. You have to start asking about the plantation owners. You have to start asking about inventories or runaway ads and looking for those. And you have to start looking at trial records. Those are some of the sources.
MASURAlso there are families both black and white, which have letters and diaries and those have not been published. They still have them in family control. And some of them may not know that what they have and some of them know what they have and have been reluctant to share them. So there is a lot out there if you know how to look.
LAROCHECan I add too, Jenny, because one story might start in one state or end up three states away so that networking is really important, because we can see that you may start in Virginia and you end up in Massachusetts? And so you have to really be able to reach out across the states.
REEDWe've got a call online two from Dale in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Dale, you're on the line.
DALEHi, folks. Good interesting topic. I was curious about your guests and their opinion of the criticism, I guess you can call it that, of the runaway slave game that was played in an elementary school in northern Virginia.
LAROCHEYes. I think things like that leave you with an impression that this was fun and that these children are learning something that is, I would say, light hearted almost. When we are looking at -- Jenny and I were talking about this earlier -- people who lose their lives, people who go to jail, people who die, people who are starving, are freezing, every manner of suffering that you can possibly imagine.
LAROCHEThe insensitivity of bringing something like this into an elementary school and turning it into a game is very thoughtless, I think. And it shows how much work still has to happen around this topic, because generally many children's books are written about it as a great adventure and without the consequences of people being ripped apart by dogs. All of the things that Jenny and I know happened when we read the original sources.
MASURI think that it's important to realize the risks that both the blacks and the whites were taking. There was something called the fugitive slave acts of 1793 and 1850. There were penalties for anybody, who was caught helping someone escape and the person who was escaping themselves was considered a criminal, because they were breaking the law. And they could be sent back to slavery and they could be -- they never knew what they could expect when they went back. They could be punished. They could be sold south. They could be killed.
REEDAre there things that schools could do instead to commemorate black history month?
MASURIf -- yes, and if you're thinking about the Underground Railroad, I think the most important thing is to begin by looking at the narratives themselves. We do have the words of the people, who escaped from slavery. There are even -- Frederick Douglas's original narrative, which is quite short, is really very compelling. And even though he's well-known across the country, his story, the details of his story are not known. So just to begin with their words and then to design research projects that would help these students really get at what it meant in human suffering. But also the courage that it took, the ingenuity that it took, I don't think we understand that part as well.
REEDYou know, Cheryl, you've talked about black history month being reduced down to 28 days of participation. What do you think about this month? What could we be doing different?
LAROCHEWell, I think -- I usually say soundbites. And I do feel like the black history month programs have gotten more sophisticated and certainly much more nuanced and complex. However, we get calls in February, excuse me. And then the other 11 months of the year where venues are having their programs -- programs that do have components of black history, those are dropped out. And so if you -- why not call in April and May and June when other programs are happening to bring black history and infuse it into all different aspects of the scholarship that are taking place in the various venues that are doing the inviting. So that's generally -- if people give me a choice, I do not take February as any kind of date that I will be speaking about black history.
MASURI think black history is 12 months a year and I think it's an important part of American history that everyone should learn.
LAROCHEBut I would say, Jenny, that it is great to have this concentrated moment, because of the way the history has been so maligned, understudied, misunderstood. It's wonderful to shed light on the history in February. And that I think we should defuse the light for the rest of the year.
REEDSo since there's so little local history that readily available about the Underground Railroad, where can our listeners turn to for different or underreported perspectives on that history?
MASURWell, I hate to say to my book, but they could turn to slave narratives. They could go to some of the archives in Washington. And the Maryland state archives has a wonderful website that has a database and has stories of people, who were involved in the Maryland area on the network to freedom -- I'm sorry, on the Underground Railroad. There's something called a national Underground Railroad network to freedom and that has members across the region. And a lot of them are associated with Underground Railroad figures or events. And you can look that up on the website.
LAROCHEYou know, I think you can also turn to family stories. Some of the things that have been ignored or discounted or refuted, we should take another look at them. We should go back over things that people dismissed, because often what we know is that dismissal isn't based on anything other than someone says it didn't happen. So those kinds of things that were reduced to lore we need to take another look at them.
LAROCHEWe need to go back over sources that have been mined and read them with the 21st century understanding of the Underground Railroad that we didn't have in previous times. And this includes sources like William Still and Siebert. We need to continue to mine them to make the kinds of connections that we know we can make now to black communities and black churches and free blacks and their role.
REEDCheryl LaRoche is the author of "Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance." Thanks for being here today.
LAROCHEThank you so much for having me. I enjoyed it.
REEDAnd Jenny Masur is author of "Heroes of the Underground Railroad around Washington D.C." Thanks for being here.
MASURThank you so much.
REEDWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Stay tuned.
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