- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

Tales of the quest for freedom in our nation’s past have meaning for Americans today, says a historian of the Underground Railroad.”As long as slavery existed and people were trying to get their freedom here, there were other people trying to help them,” says Spencer Crew, executive director of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The Cincinnati-based center, founded in 1995, is devoted to telling the saga of the network that helped blacks escape slavery in the antebellum South. Mr. Crew, former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, says the center is working to document the untold stories of fugitive slaves and those who defied federal law to aid the slaves in their pursuit of liberty.

“Those stories, that inspiration, has application in the present day,” Mr. Crew says. “You can make a difference in your society if you make the choice to be engaged.”

Those inspirational stories will be the subject of a Black History Month lecture on Tuesday by Mr. Crew at the True Reformer Building on U Street NW in the District. Sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the lecture will focus on the diverse range of participants who helped blacks escape bondage.

The Underground Railroad got its name, many historians say, from an incident in 1831. Tice Davids, a runaway slave from Kentucky, made it across the Ohio River, with his master and a hired “slave catcher” in close pursuit.

According to most accounts, Davids secretly took refuge in the home of an abolitionist in Ripley, Ohio. When his pursuers arrived and asked where the fugitive was, residents denied having seen him. Frustrated, the owner fumed that his slave had disappeared, as if he had “gone off on an underground railroad.”

The term was popularized to describe what Mr. Spencer calls “a loose organization of individuals working to undermine the institution of slavery.”

Members of the network used railroad terms as code, with “conductors” such as the escaped Maryland slave Harriet Tubman leading runaways to “stations” (safe houses) operated by “station masters” such as William Still of Philadelphia. By 1844, an abolitionist newspaper in Chicago used the railroad metaphor in a cartoon depicting smiling fugitives escaping on a “Liberty Line.”

The number of slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad during the decades before the Civil War is not known, Mr. Spencer says.

“There’s no way of knowing for sure, because it was a secret activity, but it’s estimated it was in the range of about 200,000,” says Mr. Spencer, a former history professor at the University of Maryland. “That’s a very rough estimate.”

The railroad’s activities necessarily were secret because they were illegal, violating federal laws enacted to enforce Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

While many escapees found refuge in Northern states, Mr. Spencer says, that became increasingly risky after 1850, when a more powerful fugitive-slave law was passed as part of a congressional compromise over the future of slavery in U.S. territories.

“That made it more dangerous for escaped slaves living in the North, because they were subject to capture and return to slavery more easily,” he says. “Many would go on to Canada because you were safer there than you were in the United States.”

A key theme of Mr. Spencer’s scholarship about the Underground Railroad “is that it’s a very diverse group of people working together toward the idea of freedom,” he says. The stories of their efforts offer a “powerful illustration of people from different backgrounds and different worlds working together successfully,” Mr. Spencer says.

The railroad’s activists were motivated by “individual conscience” as well as religious faith, he said. Quakers were among the earliest Underground Railroad participants. The Presbyterians up and down the Ohio River valley were particularly active, as were several black Christian churches, Mr. Spencer says.

In addition to the Ohio River region — which Harriet Beecher Stowe made the scene of a poignant escape in her 1851 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — there was much activity up and down the Eastern seaboard, Mr. Spencer says, citing the work of Tubman and other Underground Railroad participants in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Slaves escaped by overland routes, by river or by sea, Mr. Spencer says, with a greater proportion coming from border states — including Maryland and Virginia — than from the Deep South. “There are cases of individuals who traveled for weeks to gain their freedom,” he says.

While there always were sympathetic whites and free blacks who aided escaped slaves, the most active years of the Underground Railroad were from about 1830 up to the Civil War, Mr. Spencer says.

The activity increased because the resistance and the public unhappiness with slavery were growing. “More and more people, I think, began to support abolitionism and Underground Railroad activities,” he says.

After 20 years with the Smithsonian, Mr. Spencer says, he was attracted to a new job telling the story of the Underground Railroad, which delivers an important message for Americans in the 21st century.

“I think what it says is for us to find solutions to our problems of race relations and to talk and listen to one another with the goal of finding new solutions.”

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