An Interview With Fergus Bordewich
How did you come to write the book?
In a sense, I grew up with the Underground Railroad. I was raised in New York State, near a neighborhood that was said to have been founded by fugitives who came north via the underground. My mother, who was a civil rights activist who worked with American Indians, often cited the Underground Railroad as an embodiment of moral commitment and personal courage. In more recent years, the story of the Underground Railroad has increasingly become a way for both white and black Americans to talk about the painful history slavery in the United States. There has been no serious attempt to write a comprehensive history of the underground for more than a century. This book is an attempt to fill that void.
One of the book's strengths is that it is peopled with such incredible characters, from the runaway slave Josiah Henson to the Quaker Levi Coffin, to conductors George De Baptiste and David Ruggles. Do you have a favorite?
Well, one is David Ruggles, the incredibly bold young African-American who created the underground in New York City, in the 1830s. In the face of terrible personal abuse and physical threats, he repeatedly defied slave-hunters, hostile city authorities, and even the opposition of some fellow abolitionists. What I admire most about him was his unflagging, often lonely determination: he acted as if there was nothing he couldn't do. For an African-American of his time, this kind of self-confidence was truly extraordinary.
What is the most unusual place your research took you?
I visited scores of sites related to the underground, from Vermont to Kansas. One which touched me deeply was an overgrown streambed near Guilford College, just outside Greensboro, North Carolina. As a young man, the Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin and his collaborators secreted fugitive slaves there as early as the 1820s. To realize that they were doing this kind of work in the heart of the slave-holding South, at incredible risk to themselves, was profoundly moving. The streambed is nondescript, no different from many others in the vicinity. But it was a small battlefield in the moral war for the nation's soul.
What is the biggest myth about the Underground Railroad?
That the underground was a system of secret tunnels and hidey-holes. Exotic hiding places were in fact extremely rare, and unnecessary in most places. The true history of the underground is really about people, about the raw determination of African-Americans to be free, the moral radicalism of white abolitionists, and their collaboration in the first interracial political movement in American history.
Very few, if any slaves made their way out of the South via a railroad. The UGR got started before trains were in effect. Why, then, did trains become the overriding symbol of the Underground Railroad?
The period of the most rapid growth in the underground, from the 1830s through the 1850s, exactly coincided with the equally dramatic expansion of railroads. The lingo of railroading was like the language of the Internet today. The exotic new idiom of "trains," "engines," "lines," "stations," and "passenger" lent itself perfectly to what the underground was already doing: in effect, it gave the underground a universal language that everyone understood.
The Quakers played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad. In terms of American religions, how did they come to have such a central role?
Quakers were the first though by no means the only religious group to denounce slavery, and to require their members to cease owning slaves. Countless Quakers were influenced by the writings of John Woolman, who in the 1750s argued that emancipation of the slave was essential to personal salvation, writing that "the Color of a Man avails nothing, in Matters of Right and Equity," a very radical idea at the time. Although Quakers numbered only about 2 percent of the population, they were often very influential in their communities, and exerted a moral authority far beyond their mere numbers. They played a dominant role in many early anti-slavery societies.
You call the Underground Railroad not the Civil Rights Movement the first multiracial social movement in the country. Can you elaborate a bit.
In the Underground Railroad, blacks and whites discovered each other for the first time as allies in a common struggle, learning to rely on each other neither as master upon slave, nor child upon parent, but as soldiers in a common struggle. Apart from concrete help it provided to tens of thousands of fugitives, the underground's greatest achievement was its creation of the nation's first truly free zone of interracial activity where blacks not only directed complex logistical and financial operations, but also, in some places, supervised support networks that included white men and women who were accorded no special status owing to their skin color.
The story of Jonathan Walker is pretty remarkable in terms of the personal risk he took? Why do you think ordinary people took such extraordinary risks? What gave them the moral courage?
Walker's story was one of the most heroic underground exploits on record. He helped a group of fugitives escape from Pensacola, Florida, in an effort to reach British territory in the Bahamas. As a sailor who had suffered privation and cruelty aboard ship, Walker felt a deep personal kinship with the plight of slaves. Like the great majority of white participants in the underground, he also regarded slavery as a sin that corrupted all Americans, and they saw underground work as a redemptive act mandated by God a form of prayer in action. Black members of the underground didn't require the theological or philosophical motivations that drove most whites: their commitment usually came from a fierce visceral passion for freedom.
There were a number of communal experiments for fugitive slaves, such as the Dawn Colony, the community Josiah Henson helped found in Canada. Can you elaborate on how these organizations came to be considered viable living situations for freed slaves?
Most of these communities were in southern Ontario. They served, on one hand, as terminals for the Underground Railroad. In a broader sense, they were also laboratories of freedom. That is, they were places where former slaves learned how to live as free men and women. Most were, for the first time, encountering the market economy, salaries, electoral politics, and issues of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. In communities like Dawn, they received support, guidance, and education.
How essential was the Fugitive Slave Act in the Underground Railroad's expansion?
The act's sponsors hoped that it would put an end to the Underground Railroad, and compel Northerners to return escaped slaves to their masters. But it had almost exactly the opposite effect. The act enraged Northern public opinion, and prompted many fence-sitting Yankees to lend their support to the underground.
What does the Canaan in the title refer to?
Frederick Douglass remembered fellow slaves repeatedly singing:
O Canaan, sweet Canaan
I am bound for the land of Canaan.
As Douglass put it, this meant "something more than a hope of reaching heaven." Canaan, to slaves, meant the free territory, the North.