Rewriting History: Enslavement, the Underground Railroad, and Rhetoric

Children across the United States are not taught about slavery, per se, but they are taught about the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad, children learn in schools, was a network of White people who helped Black people runaway to Canada or somewhere in the northern part of the United States. I remember one teacher, who shall remain nameless, who told us that slaves knew a house was safe to stop at if their porch light was on! Never mind electricity did not exist yet, and if slaves knew, all White people would know, too.

The myth of the Underground Railroad is problematic for a number of reasons: 

Data shows that somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 Blacks in the 19th century permanently escaped slavery. In 1860, there were around 4,000,000 enslaved people. So at best, only a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of enslaved people escaped. 

Society’s suggestion that this was a large-scale movement has the implication of “teaching” people that slavery was not that bad since enslaved peoples could and did run away en masse, and those who did not run away must have not been treated that bad or were weaker and needed protection. Of course, these implications are in sharp contrast to evidence.

Likewise, if there was a large Underground Railroad, people were not as racist as some suggest, as this network supposedly depended on generous White people in the North and South. Of course, this erases that even those against enslavement were generally very racist, and this erases Black agency and independent activism. Black enslaved people did not need White people to help them resist the institution. And being “free” or being in the North was no guarantee against future enslavement. 

The Underground Railroad myth also ignores that enslaved peoples often escaped to New Spain, Mexico, New France, and other places. They also occasionally joined a group of Indians. And occasionally, especially in places outside of the United States, formed maroon communities.  

The Underground Railroad myth further simplifies Black agency to only running away (with the help of White people). In contrast, those enslaved resisted in all kinds of ways, including running away for brief periods, sometimes on a regular schedule. 

In sum, the myth of the Underground Railroad fully erases the degree to which enslavers and the entire nation–White people in the South and in the North–were completely committed to and dependent on the institution of enslavement for cultural, economic, political, and social reasons. Likewise, it deletes the agency asserted and the pain experienced by Black people. People who uphold this myth are not honoring Harriet Tubman, unless they also discuss the complexities discussed here.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda