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 

 



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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14 replies

  1. I agree to this, I was taught a lot about this underground railroad and it really doesn’t do their history justice, and the truth should be known.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wasn’t educated about this back in high school from where I’m from, but it’s incredible to know what people are being taught and what is being hidden about this myth.

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  3. There is always an agenda. “American Exceptionalism” goes so far as to smudge, erase, and rewrite history in order to enhace this mindset that Americans have always been on the right side of things.

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  4. I find a lot of points in history are taught to children in schools on a very warm-and-fuzzy basis, i.e. Abe Lincoln loved blacks instead of Abe Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist but simply believed that blacks had a right to move up in life like whites did. We glorify JFK (not going to lie, I do too) and his supposed push for equality even though he didn’t do enough for blacks which was expressed at the time; Johnson is the one that put all of Kennedy’s ideas into actual practice (had it been different if JFK hadn’t been assassinated, I don’t know). I’m not sure what the system benefits from teaching history to kids this way, because all I see is a bunch of people growing up to not fully comprehending history and all of its nuances.

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  5. I remember being taught about this in the second grade. Back then I did not know any better so I just accepted the underground railroad as something great. Now that I am older I know that that was a myth, I just had not thought about it in so long that I forgot that it was even a thing.

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  6. Words are vey powerful when it comes to writing down history. It is the point of view that the author guides the reader towards it and the specific terms used that change the history and creates it any way he or she wants to. Many modern history books tend to mitigate the actual stories. This is essentially bad since it doesn’t attribute enough importance to people who suffered so much such as Black people. This in way is making them less important and suggesting that what they say is “exaggerated” in a way.

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  7. I did not heard of this railroad thing before. Good to learn something new!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I cannot talk too much about this history because this whole thing is completely new to me so I am not sure about its validity. However, what I do know is history is often whitewashed by the victors or people with power. To be honest, lots of rules we think we known may turn out to be wrong as we discovered new things. Therefore, we should think these truth or things we think we known as fixed. Always be a critical thinker, and allow the space and tolerance for change. Instead of thinking something as static,try to view it dynamically. It is quite frustrating when you find something you used to believe turn out to be completely wrong. However, this is a common part of learning. Knowledge is unlimited, the more we learn the less we know.

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  9. All we’ve learned in History is not 100% accurate in my opinion. I’ve come to terms that some of the things taught in earlier school years have tried to make our nation seem so pretty and nice and our previous leaders have always been for the people. I was taught that the underground railroad was such an amazing thing that helped multiple people when it was all a facade to make it seem like we did something. I love the history classes I take now in college because it gives me background information of what “theoretically” actually happened.

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  10. This article was very eye-opening. I’ve heard of the Underground Railroad since I was in elementary school. It was always posed as a prestigious accomplishment in African American history. I had always believed it without questioning it at all, but I’m glad I got read this article.

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  11. I agree with this article. There is a lot of history that is not taught and there is a lot of history that is taught based on what that particular person may or may not believe. I believe history should be discussed more in schools and researched more and more to know the truth. It saddens me to see how many younger people are coming up and not even knowing about the “underground railroad.” Great article.

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  12. Learning about this growing up always intrigued me thinking why were the blacks chosen to do all this slave work. Learning in the early education phase this was not talked about and its fascinating how this information is not discussed.

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  13. America loves white washing traumatic events as to make it seem less traumatic. I had a professor once tell met that slavery was equally as traumatic for the slave owner as it was for the slave. That same professor also tried to explain the benefits of slavery to slaves. I do not understand why it is so hard to fully acknowledge how horrible slavery was as well as provide accurate information of what happened, and the effects of it all. The only reasons I can come up with are that it is that the government hates admitting to when they are wrong and they don’t want to own up to it fully because with that may come reparations that they may have to pay.

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  14. As a black American, I appreciate the acknowledgement of black history being slowly removed through grade school education and even witnessed it at my private highschool. We were literally given the basics in a brief lesson and even a few of my white classmates were shocked as if they hadn’t even heard some of this information. It’s as if its inclusion in our current history was an apology to black Americans for a certain period of time and about now seems as if keeping the full details isn’t necessary anymore.

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