The Supernatural and the Mundane in Depictions of the Underground Railroad

Andrew K. Diemer

“Twenty-eight fugitives escaping from the eastern shore of Maryland,” from William Still, Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), p. 102. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Between 1847 and 1860, William Still was the most important figure in the pivotal Philadelphia “station” of the Underground Railroad. The New Jersey-born Still, son of formerly enslaved parents, took a job at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where he found himself at the center of some of the most dramatic fugitive-slave escapes of the antebellum era. His involvement in these dramatic events, however, has sometimes led us to overlook the importance of Still’s more pedestrian, day-to-day work as Chairman of the Acting Committee of Philadelphia’s Vigilance Committee. This work, I argue in my JER article, in which Still sought to bring a business-like order to this work, would prove essential to the success of hundreds of fugitive slaves in their flight from bondage.

Ever since the term first entered common usage in the 1840s, Americans have been fascinated by the Underground Railroad. Southern planters obsessed over the Railroad’s role in spiriting away their property, while abolitionists trumpeted the success of the Underground as evidence of the progress of their cause. After the Civil War, a flood of abolitionist reminiscences helped to solidify the legend of the Underground Railroad in the popular consciousness. The bulk of this literature was written by white veterans of the struggle, or sometimes their sons or daughters, and tended to emphasize the role of brave, selfless white allies in the rescue of fugitives. As a result, the legend of the Underground Railroad tended to glorify these white “stationmasters,” and fugitive slaves tended to appear simply as the grateful beneficiaries of this white heroism.[1]

There were, however, always those who told a different story, one that kept alive the central role of African Americans in the Underground Railroad. This meant fugitive slaves themselves, of course, but also the networks of Black communities, North and South, that did the lion’s share of work aiding fugitives in their flight from bondage. The crucial text here was Still’s Underground Rail Road, first published in 1872. This massive volume, nearly 800 pages of text, based on records he had kept over his years in the struggle, provided an essential corrective to the white legend of the Liberty Line.[2] Nevertheless, for decades, this legend continued to dominate popular understandings of the Underground Railroad.

Fortunately, that has changed, not only among scholars who have largely embraced Still’s fugitive-centric account of the Underground Railroad, but increasingly among a public which is more likely to see fugitives-turned-agents like Harriet Tubman as the face of the Underground Railroad rather than the white saviors of earlier generations. Recent film, television, and fictional depictions attest to the triumph of this Black-centered vision of the Underground Railroad. Just in the last few years, we have seen the release of a film account of Harriet Tubman, Harriet; a critically acclaimed television show, Underground; and novels by acclaimed writers Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (which has itself spawned a television miniseries), and Ta-Nehisi Coats, The Water Dancer. Notably, Still looms large in much of this work. He is a major character in Harriet and a minor character in Underground; Coates draws extensively on Still’s story.[3]

Curiously, however, a number of these recent works have contributed to a different sort of legendary vision of the Underground Railroad. Whether on the page or on the screen, these works have frequently turned to the supernatural as a way of depicting the flight of fugitive slaves. Whitehead transforms the Underground Railroad into a literal underground railroad. Coates depicts agents of the Underground as space-bending “water dancers.” In Harriet, Tubman’s visions, which historians have often attributed to head trauma she suffered as a young woman, are shown instead as genuine visions that guide her in her forays back into Maryland, making possible her seemingly miraculous feats of rescue.[4]

Each of these depictions is successful within the context of the works themselves. My point here is not to criticize the choices of novelists, screenwriters, or directors, who are, of course, free to diverge from the historical record in a way that historians must not. We might ask, though, what draws these different artists to embrace the supernatural as a way of making sense of the Underground Railroad? Does magic somehow capture something about the Underground Railroad that historians have failed to? Perhaps even more importantly, what are the consequences of such choices for popular understandings of the work of those who fled slavery and those who aided them in their flight?

“A bold stroke for freedom,” from William Still, Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), p. 124. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

There is a danger in seeing the Underground Railroad as something that operated outside the laws of the physical world; we risk missing just what it was that made it successful. In my article on William Still, I argue that to understand the Underground Railroad, or at least Still’s portion of it, we need to pay attention to the mundane details of the day-to-day work of Vigilance Committees, like the one Still led in Philadelphia. Of course, Still’s accounts of fugitive slaves who found their way to Philadelphia are filled also with stories of near-escapes, clever ruses, and brave resistance. It is understandable that writers (whether of history or fiction) have been drawn to these stories. Still makes it clear, though, that much of this drama was driven not by his own substantial network, but rather that it was a product of the initiative of individual fugitives, and of smaller, decentralized, local networks of support. Magical depictions help make sense out of the messiness of the sprawling, grassroots effort to assist fugitive slaves. In a sense, Whitehead’s supernatural Underground Railroad serves to reinforce the vision of the Underground popularized by historian William Siebert more than a hundred years ago, a vision that depicted the Underground not as a metaphor, but as a system of extensive and more-or-less fixed routes, much like the actual railroads of his day.[5]

William Still’s Vigilance Committee work was dedicated to bringing structure and system to the effort to aid fugitive slaves, but it was far from either the rigid network of roads envisioned by Siebert or the supernatural network imagined by Coates, Whitehead, and others. Instead, as I demonstrate in my article, Still’s organization devoted the lion’s-share of its effort to relatively undramatic work that nevertheless proved essential. It raised money, money that was then used to provide fugitives with food, clothing, haircuts, and shaves. It secured a safe place for fugitives to stay while they remained in Philadelphia, not necessarily the hidden compartments of legend, but with families (often the Stills themselves) who were discreet and who could be trusted. It arranged and paid for passage from Philadelphia to safer destinations. It collected information on fugitives and those who were searching for them.[6] All of this work made it more likely that fugitives from slavery would be able to elude the slavecatchers who prowled the streets of the nation, North and South. This seemingly mundane work was essential to the functioning of the Underground Railroad, and the protection it provided those on the run from bondage.


Endnotes

[1] For a good overview of this legendary view of the Underground Railroad, see Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, KY, 1961), 143–94

[2] William Still, The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts (Philadelphia, 1872).

[3] Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Focus Features, 2019); Underground, created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski (WGN America, 2016–2017); Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (New York, 2016); Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer (New York, 2019).

[4] Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of and American Hero (New York, 2003), 41–44.

[5] William Henry Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1898). Gara provides an essential criticism of Siebert’s depiction, Gara, Liberty Line, 190–94.

[6] For a more extensive discussion of this work, see Andrew K. Diemer, Vigilance: The Life of William Still, Father of the Underground Railroad (New York, forthcoming).

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