BENNINGTON -- About 15 residents at Southwestern Vermont Healthcare's Centers for Living and Rehabilitation on Monday morning for a presentation on the local history of the Underground Railroad.
The talk was given by Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, co-founders of the Albany-based Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region. The project, founded in 2003, grew out of research begun by the pair in the 1990s, when Mary Liz Stewart had tried to find local information about the railroad for her fifth grade history class, and Paul had joined her, hoping to write a story for the community newspaper he worked for at the time. Eventually, both would leave their jobs to pursue their research further.
"We decided," said Mary Liz Stewart, "what else can we find? What else can we discover?"
She continued, "After about two years of research we were finding that the story we were finding was much different than the traditional retelling." Paul noted that many believed the story of the underground railroad was that of a few brave people, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, leading slaves through tunnel systems and to houses that displayed quilts to let the freedom seekers (the Stewarts never refer to them as escaped slaves, runaways, or fugitives, which they say defines them as slaves and thus ignores their humanity) know which houses were safe. The reality, he said, was considerably different.
"It's not just a story about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass," he said, "There were a lot of other people involved." He also said the story of the quilts, which was popularized in Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard's 2000 book, "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," was not supported by any of the primary source documents they had come across. He said one of their primary goals in researching the history was focusing on the documents themselves, letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles from the time period, rather than what he described as, "The long, tall tales that grow out of retelling after retelling."
Some such documents have been relatively easy to find. Newspapers in Albany and Troy warned and posted minutes from meetings of vigilance committees, groups dedicated to finding and aiding freedom seekers within the state of New York, leading to a wealth of information. Other documents, however, are harder to find. "Finding documents written by women had been a real challenge," said Mary Liz, "I like to joke that they were too busy with the underground railroad to write about themselves in newspapers like the men!"
Several of the letters they found, dated from the early 1840s, were addressed to a Charles Hicks of Bennington. In one, abolitionist Abel Brown wrote Hicks to request that he either employ the letter-bearer, who was an escaped slave, or give him aid and help him on his way. Another letter, from abolitionist Fayette Shipherd, who referred to him as "Brother Hicks," and asked, "How goes the war with oppression in your blood-stained democratic town?"
Paul Stewart pointed out that, although New York passed a personal freedom law that gave freedom to any former slaves that crossed their borders, freedom seekers were not yet safe as slave catchers, operating under the federal Fugitive Slave law, could still kidnap them and take them back to the south.
Life wasn't always easy for the abolitionists, "Many of those who were fighting for abolition," he said, "were viewed as disruptors, de-Unionists, and radicals. They were not well liked in many places, including Bennington." The fugitive slave law also allowed slave catchers to demand passers-by help them in apprehending slaves -- those who refused to help could themselves be arrested and charged.
The URHP hosts conferences, presentations, and events for youths, but one of their most significant projects is the restoration of the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence in Albany, which was used as an abolitionist meetinghouse in the years leading up to the Civil War. Restoration of the property began in 2008, and is expected to cost over $1 million. However, the group has been able to complete much of the work with volunteer labor and donated funds.
To learn more about the organization, visit their website at undergroundrailroadhistory.org.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB