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Free Black Communities and the Underground RailroadThe Geography of Resistance$

Cheryl Janifer LaRoche

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780252038044

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252038044.001.0001

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(p.ix) Preface

(p.ix) Preface

Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad

Cheryl Janifer LaRoche

University of Illinois Press

This book presents a place-based study of free Black communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The humble settlements of Rocky Fork, Miller Grove, Lick Creek, and Poke Patch highlight Underground Railroad activities using vital elements of what I term the “geography of resistance.” By using the land as a document and relying on archaeology and community and church histories, in addition to traditional Underground Railroad stories, the lives of the people forming church and community finally connected. From there I began to look for broader examples.

Near the end of my research, Pamela Tilley, historiographer for the lay organization of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, assured me that Reading, Pennsylvania, had everything I was looking for. She arranged a meeting with local historian Frank Gilyard Jr., sadly, now deceased, and his dynamic wife, Mildred, who took me on a tour of their marvelous Central Pennsylvania African American Museum housed in the Old Bethel AME church. It was here in Reading that the pieces of my research came together. The town had it all: the Black church, the ever present William Paul Quinn, documented Underground Railroad escapes, iron forges, waterways and caves for hiding, a cemetery with Civil War graves—all components I had come to recognize as elements essential to how Blacks operated along the Underground Railroad as part of the geography of resistance.

I was grateful that Tilley had traveled east from Texas to help me solve the last parts of a vexing puzzle. She and I spent hours talking about the importance of the AME church beyond its religious functions. We both agree that the magnitude of the influence of the denomination during the historic period of the Underground Railroad has yet to be fully appreciated. I hope this study moves the church beyond the realm of religion and catapults it to a stature equal to its historic importance for the Underground Railroad.

(p.x) By the time of Tilley’s visit, I had been studying African American involvement in the Underground Railroad for more than ten years. I had come to understand a story quite different from the usual fare of frightened fugitives and their benevolent abolitionist accomplices. As I learned the mechanisms behind the stories, I began finding names of Black abolitionists and Underground Railroad operatives, such as New York’s Charles B. Ray, Illinois’s John Jones, and Pennsylvania’s Lewis Woodson, turning up across several states, Black organizations, and social networks. At times, they were members of the Free Masons or attended colored conventions together. They assembled at the Phoenix Society, emigration conventions, and general conferences. Many had been ministers in the rural black churches or independent denominations that animate this study.

This book is divided into three parts. Part I focuses on four specific sites: Rocky Fork and Miller Grove in Illinois, Lick Creek in Indiana, and Poke Patch in Ohio. Part II defines and explores each of the components of the geography of resistance. Part III combines family stories and individual narratives with Black community and church histories and the activism of the Prince Hall Masons to place African American families inside these institutional structures.

Combining history and geography fosters an expanded understanding useful for recognizing and recovering African American participation beyond sites normally associated with the Underground Railroad. Redrawing historic maps of Underground Railroad routes to include Black settlements and churches makes visible unrecognized parallel connections between free Black communities and larger better-known abolitionist centers (see map 1). Where the historical record was thin, I relied on archaeology and studied the cultural landscape. It may well come to pass that the archaeological signature of the Underground Railroad will be the footprint of the Black church rather than the underground tunnels and concealed passageways that first attracted the narrow focus of the discipline.1

Concentrating on the landscape, Black communities, and Black churches emphasizes the self-determination of free Blacks. Community and church histories bundled with well-worn narratives and brief biographical accounts tie together the lives of seemingly unrelated operators, both Black and White. Within the Black community, an alternative oral, local, and family history was handed from parent to child, from family to family, and from Black historians to the reading public. Each passed along a powerful narrative of Blacks ensuring their own liberation in the midst of constant economic, social, judicial, and educational hardships.

(p.xi) Through this work, my understanding of the Black community expanded from the small rural pre–Civil War midwestern clusters I had spent a dozen years studying, to include Underground Railroad operatives who were openly meeting with one another at convention, conference, church, and society gatherings convened for worthy and respectable causes. At each of the historic settlements I visited, a community of Black families had once come together, initially meeting in one another’s homes, to lay the foundations for the Black church. Most frequently AME churches, but AME Zion and Baptist churches as well, were magnets binding families to one another, connecting the settlements to the larger world. Beyond the official minutes and newspaper accounts, I began to see that family members, Black institutions, and Black churches, particularly their ministers, were in league with one another.

Throughout my travels, I repeatedly ran across one name, William Paul Quinn, one of the first seven itinerant preachers appointed by the AME Church. Quinn later rose to prominence as its fourth bishop. When I first arrived at Rocky Fork in Illinois, he was listed as the organizer of the small congregation. When I traveled to Lick Creek in Indiana, his name was on the deed for the church. When I came back to Maryland, I found Quinn Chapel less than an hour from my home; Quinn had been active in Frederick, Maryland. Now Tilley was taking me to Pennsylvania to visit Old Bethel AME, which Quinn had helped organize in 1821.

Each one of these churches has a local Underground Railroad story behind it. In the countryside sanctuaries, tucked away on remote land, beyond the ready reach of the outside world, Quinn and other itinerant preachers were sanctioned to move from place to place spreading the word of God and the gospel of liberation.

When archaeologist Paul Shackel first suggested I travel to Illinois to determine whether a small town started by Frank McWorter, a free Black man in New Philadelphia, Illinois, was a viable archaeological site, I could not have anticipated the rich reward that the journey would yield. Over the span of years, my journey has taken me from the African Meeting House in Nantucket, Massachusetts, to the grave of Moses Dickson in St. Louis, Missouri, to an early AME church and settlement in San Francisco, California, looking for historic Black communities, their organizations, and their churches.

As originally defined, the Underground Railroad was a movement that began in the 1830s as an outgrowth of the unrelenting actions of self-liberators’ and abolitionists’ efforts to aid those escaping slavery. In contrast (p.xii) to persistent misperceptions of the Underground Railroad, Blacks were positioned on the edge of freedom, on what historian Keith Griffler calls “the front line of freedom.”2 Now defined as a mode of operation rather than as a structured organization, the Underground Railroad was a movement—a political position—defined by a philosophical relationship with freedom for all who were involved.

While abolitionism has received considerable attention, academic historians tended to ignore the Underground Railroad, particularly throughout the twentieth century. Involvement of African Americans beyond the actions of those escaping slavery was difficult to recover. Graham Russell Hodges laid out the various reasons that gave historians pause in ascribing importance to it.3 Denied the traditional interpretative approaches historians provide, the topic was allowed to lie fallow, prompting Congress, in 1990, to direct the National Park Service (NPS) to determine the most appropriate ways to interpret and commemorate the widespread national and international work of the Underground Railroad in ways commensurate with its importance. It is as though the movement needed an organized cohesive interpretative plan so that the disparate components could resonate.

For centuries, escaping Blacks found sanctuary in a wide range of places representing freedom both at home and abroad and Congress emphasized the importance of approximate escape routes. As a result, NPS expanded the scope of the Underground Railroad beyond the original nineteenth-century meaning and beyond popular understanding. The “retrospective” use of the term by NPS now includes “incidents which have all the characteristics of Underground Railroad activity, but which occurred before 1820.”4 The National Historic Landmark Archaeological Initiative defines the Underground Railroad as “every attempt the enslaved made to escape from the 1600s to 1865.”5

Throughout this book, when referring to the Underground Railroad as broadly defined by NPS, I refer to the “Underground Railroad movement,” which includes unassisted escapes and events occurring prior to 1830. I use the term “Underground Railroad” to refer to the traditional definition of escapes, assisted or not, which originated after 1830 where escapees either used known routes or accepted aid once they crossed into the border states.

Underground Railroad lore frequently defies logic; one part of a long cherished story may prove false and misremembered, yet the remaining elements of the story may hold historical truths. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I am cautious about disregarding lore and longstanding legends without research supporting refutation. Often we are less rigorous in denial of fact than we are in corroboration and acceptance. I use oral testimony as (p.xiii) a starting point or research thread and urge reevaluation of oral histories. I advocate preserving stories despite apparently implausible, anachronistic, or temporally and geographically inaccurate data. These same errors can and do occur in the written record as well. Rather than dismiss inaccurate oral histories, we should begin to think of that instability as an expected component. I am wary of completely accurate narrations. I think legends offer clues which exist in a pre-verifiable form; in that way stories can be maintained as research questions rather than assigned to oblivion.

I refer to African American people using the terms “Black” and “people of color” interchangeably, “colored,” or “Negro” as historic terms or within direct quotes. Nineteenth-century African American history is a particularly racialized subject, requiring a racialized language. Black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet traveled over this same linguistic terrain more than two and a half centuries ago. “How unprofitable it is for us to spend our golden moments in long and solemn debate upon the question whether we shall be called ‘Africans,’ ‘Colored Americans,’ or ‘Africo Americans,’ or ‘Blacks.’ The question should be, my friends, shall we arise and act like men, and cast off this terrible yoke?”6 Throughout this book, in recognition that Blacks often intermarried or had relations with Native Americans and with Whites, I also employ the nineteenth-century term “free people of color” to indicate the range of Black people within a racially diverse population. When possible, I minimize the use of terms such as “slave,” “runaway,” “fugitive slave,” or “fugitive from justice.” These terms dehumanize and criminalize those escaping the multiple oppressions of slavery and define freedom-seeking behavior from the enslavers’ legal vantage point.

Again, following the lead of Henry Highland Garnet, I avoid general use of the word “slave,” substituting whenever possible the term “enslaved” or “captive.” In understanding the power of language to sway opinion, either positively or negatively, and in realizing how language codified racialized oppression, Garnet was already using “enslaved” rather than “slave” four years before the start of the Civil War.7 (p.xiv)