Gladys Marie Fry set me on this path years ago by opening my eyes and my ears to the power of one’s story. Through her, I became a better listener, and I am deeply appreciative of all who listened as I spoke or who critiqued aspects of this work. I am grateful to venerable bibliophile and collector Charles Blockson, the modern father of Underground Railroad research.
In the course of my first year in Illinois, the Center for American Archaeology in Kampsville funded my research as a “Women in Archaeology” intern and Monticello Scholar. I was fortunate to meet Charlotte Johnson, who was passionate about preserving the Underground Railroad history of Rocky Fork, in the middle of Illinois. Charlotte’s husband, Cyrus, is a descendant of the Johnson family, who founded a farm in Wood River in the 1840s. The homestead stands as the oldest African American family farm in Illinois.
Charlotte was adamant that I study Rocky Fork, a small Black settlement outside Alton, in addition to my original destination of New Philadelphia, for the real story of the Underground Railroad. She wanted me to understand how Blacks had worked to free themselves from slavery even as they worked and lived among Quakers and other Whites. In her quest to have the story told, she introduced me to Charles Benjamin Townsend, Clementine Kennedy, Rich Edwards, John Matlock, and the members of the New Bethel AME Church at Rocky Fork, all of whom shared their family histories, records, and photographs. As Clementine Kennedy fed me, I experienced the delicious foods made from family recipes that had been passed down through the generations and that were mentioned in historical accounts. Aunt Clem, as I came to know her, sheltered me and treated me like family. It was a pleasure to attend church services with her as I learned firsthand about the historical legacy of centuries-old Black churches. The Green-Hawkins family, of which she is a member, warmly received me at their family reunion in 2002. Rocky Fork descendants shared the richness of (p.xvi) their African American family legacy and their sense of place. Their family history informed my research and deeply influenced my understanding of the inseparable relationship among free Black communities, Black organizations, the Black church, and the Underground Railroad.
The Committee on Black Pioneers of the Alton Museum of History and Art, in recognition of the importance of the local story, preserved the heritage of Rocky Fork settlement through an oral and family history project. As a committee member, Charlotte Johnson brought me out to walk the rocky terrain. As a local historian, she was seeking help in commemorating and documenting Rocky Fork and its Underground Railroad legacy. Through oral interviews, local histories, and newspaper accounts that Charlotte provided privately and using the Black Pioneer resources at the museum, I gained insight into the preserved memory of the small historic community. The Underground Railroad figured prominently but was not well-known beyond the region. Voids in documentary history, particularly around clandestine African American sites operating as Underground Railroad stations, dictated that I do something different. Unlike New Philadelphia and Miller Grove—two Illinois sites that I studied that summer—existing historical resources for Rocky Fork were limited.
I spent three summers excavating and researching Miller Grove, where I worked closely with Mary McCorvie, heritage officer and forest archaeologist in the Shawnee National Forest at Murphysboro, Illinois. Through efforts of National Forest Service employees Elizabeth Fuller, Marlene Rivero, and Vickie Davenport, I received extensive research support. Their efforts led me to other descendants of the Miller Grove community, James Crimm and Jessie McClure. I was able to conduct a telephone interview with Wilbur McClure before his death. McCorvie drove me from Illinois to Indiana and then to Ohio so that I could meet and work with heritage officers and forest archaeologists Angie Krieger of the Hoosier National Forest and Ann Cramer of the Wayne National Forest. Under their guidance, I continued to collect necessary archaeological information. Through their Underground Railroad work and their associations with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the three women exhibited a commitment to making the most of African American historical resources located within their jurisdictions on National Forest Service properties.
Once I returned home, I spent hours with my research partner, Ambassador Ronald D. Palmer, debating what I had learned about William Paul Quinn’s maddeningly elusive life. With Palmer’s assistance, I built upon the work of Hannah Gefert, Hillary Russell, and others whose research helped to expose Black institutional ties to the Underground Railroad by linking the activities of the Free Masons, many of them ministers. Fellow Quinn researcher and (p.xvii) colleague Donna Stokes-Lucas generously shared her extensive research on Quinn’s ministry in Indiana and provided a critical list and map of Black churches in Indiana drawn by Indiana researcher Coy Robbins. Stokes-Lucas was invaluable in helping me decipher the churches and settlements in Indiana for the revised Underground Railroad map of Indiana (map 5).
A word about Coy Robbins. He died just as I was beginning my research in Indiana. So much of the clarity I have been able to bring to the subject of free Blacks and the Underground Railroad is because of his extensive work on Black settlements in Indiana. I am truly grateful for his historic legacy.
As I extended my research into Canada, Karolyn Smartz Frost became an important ally. She and Bryan Prince have a mindboggling grasp of their subject matter, which they most graciously shared with me in my quest to form new arguments about Blacks and the Underground Railroad. Frost introduced me to community descendants who embraced me and treated me like family as we toured communities at Chatham, Buxton, and Dresden. Through Frost, I met Bryan Newby, his wife, Alice, and their wonderful daughters, Quinn and Blair. The circle was complete when I met Bryan, a descendant of Civil War veteran James Newby. Newby had lived in Lick Creek, Indiana, one of the sites investigated for this study and from which Blacks migrated to Buxton. I am grateful I was able to meet Bryan before his premature death in 2006.
Sheri Jackson, while she was the Northeast regional coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program of the National Park Service, was a gracious ally, answering my every request. She and Park Service regional program coordinators Barbara Taggar, James Hill, Guy Washington, and Diane Miller work tirelessly to promote the Network to Freedom program.
When I returned east, visits with Museum Director Beverly Morgan Welch and her staff, L’Merchie Frazier, Chandra Harrington, and Tracy Gibbs, at the Museum of African American History in Boston broadened my perspective. I first began to connect the larger work of free Black communities through the African Meeting Houses in both Boston and Nantucket. Likewise, John Creighton, Pat Lewis, Kate Clifford Larson, and Barbara Taggar generously shared information about Harriet Tubman and Blacks on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that complicated the role of Blacks, both free and enslaved, who indirectly facilitated escapes or worked directly on the Underground Railroad. A word of thanks also to archaeologist Chris Barton, who invited me to the Timbuctoo site in New Jersey. Barton’s sharing of an Underground Railroad map of New Jersey helped me confirm my argument.
My work benefited from the steady hand of Paul Shackel and guidance from Ira Berlin, Lynn Bolles, Elsa Barkley Brown, John Caughey, Mary (p.xviii) Sies, and Roy Finkenbine. Chris Fennell’s careful reading of the manuscript strengthened this work as did Shelby Shapiro’s review. Susan Winfield’s organizational skills added logic and flow to the manuscript.
Prize-winning author and Washington Post journalist Wil Haygood led a nonfiction workshop for the Hurston Wright Writer’s Workshop that completely altered my relationship to writing and to story telling. The organizers, novelist Marita Goldman and bibliophile Clyde McElvene, warrant all the praise I have to offer. My gratitude runs deep, and Sonja Williams from Howard University’s School of Communication deserves a special word of thanks for convincing me to apply. Fellow participants Oya Johnson, Carroll Blue, Imani Perry, Stephanie Boddie, Amanda Lockett, Amelia Reid, Edra Chandler, and I formed a sisterhood of “Literary Lionesses” during that magical week.
Throughout the writing phase, I was supported by the women of The Connection Writer’s Congress, Gina LaRoche, Kim Hunley, and Stacy Blake-Beard. Thank you too to my sufficiency partners, Brij Masand, Susan Varn, Shareda Hosein, and Malik Williams.
The Bethesda Writer’s Center in Maryland became my haven and my laboratory as I completed the manuscript while working with authors Ken Ackerman and David Stewart. Again, I bonded with my fellow workshop members, Bonny Miller, Diana Parsell, Stephanie Boddie, Michael Kirkland, Sonja Williams, Nancy Derr, Michael Scadron, and Judi Moore Latta, who critiqued, and at times endured, various sections of the manuscript.
Of course, a special thanks to my family, Gina LaRoche and Alan Price, Renee LaRoche-Morris and Ralston Morris, Danielle LaRoche, Dan King, Elizabeth and James Janifer, and Vicki Wilson, who have supported me in ways too numerous to mention. Repeatedly, I have depended on Cherise Wilson, who has been my tireless ally in organizing and preparing all the graphics for this work. I appreciate the efforts of Russell Campbell who read and critiqued an early version of this manuscript and am very thankful for the constant support and encouragement of my colleague Joshua Woodfork.
I am grateful to all who generously shared research data and exchanged thoughtful ideas. Without their help, elucidating the history of the Black community’s involvement with the Underground Railroad would have required countless more years in pursuit of elusive evidence. Through it all, I learned to both respect and appreciate the power of memory and oral traditions in shaping and sustaining the history of African American families and communities. I drink from the fountain of an untapped historical reservoir.