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[greenyes] Evangelicals in Another Role



WALL STREET JOURNAL March 29, 2005

BOOKS

Destination, Freedom
By JOHN J. MILLER

On a cold winter night in 1838, a woman carrying an infant fled across the
frozen Ohio River. The ice had started to thaw, but she could hear the dogs
of her pursuers barking in the distance and decided to push forward. Cracks
opened beneath her twice, drenching her in the frigid water. When she
finally reached the far shore, she somehow mustered enough strength to
stumble to a farmhouse. She and her baby warmed themselves before a fire,
received a change of clothes and were led to another home before sunrise.

It was their first stop on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe
eventually heard the story and turned it into one of the most memorable
episodes in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In the novel, the woman was called Eliza.
In real life, none of the people who helped "Eliza" that night knew her
name.

That was typical -- and it presents a mighty challenge to historians. The
network of abolitionists devoted to helping slaves find their freedom wasn't
described as "underground" for nothing. Records of its operations are
scarce. Frederick Douglass urged his allies to keep mum. "Let us not hold
the light by which [our enemies] can trace the footprints of our flying
brother," he said.
Y
et in "Bound for Canaan" (Amistad, 540 pages, $27.95), Fergus M. Bordewich
illuminates the lives and times of the Underground Railroad's
stationmasters, conductors and passengers. He has written an excellent book
that is probably as close to a definitive history as we're likely to see.

Myth surrounds our sense of the Underground Railroad. What was it really
like?

When the Underground Railroad was running, frustrated Southerners imagined
it to be much more extensive than it really was. Today Americans are likely
to overstate its significance because they want examples of moral virtue to
make up for a national stain. As Mr. Bordewich notes, there is a "national
fairy tale" quality to the Underground Railroad, and any serious chronicle
must break through "the hard sheen of myth."

"Bound for Canaan" offers several myth-busting lessons, including the
unsurprising fact that few of the movement's white leaders subscribed to
21st-century notions of racial equality. One of the most influential
figures, Levi Coffin, hoped that ending slavery would put a stop to
miscegenation.

Yet the primary inspiration for Coffin and his band was religious. In the
1820s, Pennsylvania Quakers developed the idea of concealing fugitives in
their attics and cellars and then moving them to new hideaways during the
night. THE PRACTICE SPREAD QUICKLY, ESPECIALLY AMONG EVANGELICALS IN OHIO
AND INDIANA. Free blacks played vital roles as well. The revolutionary new
technology of locomotives offered a handy metaphor.

What started out as a mishmash of volunteers became a sophisticated system
of furtive transportation. Successful escapes involved feeding runaways,
giving them new clothes and shoes, and providing them with medical care.
Stationmasters also had to procure horses and wagons, dispatch messages, and
find ways to pay for it all. It was like running a small business, or
perhaps a nonprofit organization, on a shoestring budget. Although money
frequently traded hands -- many of the conductors who led slaves to liberty
were compensated -- the motives were almost entirely spiritual.

The Underground Railroad's trains ran on time because a remarkable group of
men and women believed that civil disobedience was their pious duty. Even
more remarkable were the runaways themselves, who risked everything for
freedom. Relatively little is known about them. In the midst of a movement
that left behind few documents, they left behind the fewest.

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_________________________
Peter Anderson, President
RECYCLEWORLDS CONSULTING
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705-4964
Ph: (608) 231-1100
Fax: (608) 233-0011
Cell: (608) 698-1314
eMail: anderson@no.address
web: www.recycleworlds.net

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