Ohio History Journal

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Gara. (Lexington: University of Ken-

tucky Press, 1961. xi+201p.; index.


"Although the underground railroad

was a reality, much of the material relat-

ing to it belongs in the realm of folklore

rather than history. . . . Most legends

have many versions, and the story of the

underground railroad is no exception.

Few people can provide details when

asked about the institution. Specific in-

formation is usually crowded out by

vague generalizations. The underground

railroad is accepted on faith as a part of

America's heritage" (p. 2).

The above quotation gives the cue to

Professor Gara's monograph. First, he

examines the legend. Most of the slaves

were longing for freedom and large num-

bers of them sought it in the "Promised

Land of freedom." Abolitionists, bravely

facing danger and hardship, perfected a

vast and methodical network known as

the Underground Railroad, by means of

which the slave attained his objective of

freedom. Innumerable tunnels and sta-

tions existed, and secrecy in operations

was essential, since the conductors often

found their lives endangered as a result

of their efforts. A part of the tradition,

too, is the essential morality of the New

Englanders and the Quakers as opposed

to the wickedness of the southerners.

The author examines also the factors in

the persistence and strengthening of the

legend. Prior to the Civil War, stories of

escaping slaves and their benefactors were

repeated, oftentimes with embellishments.

Abolitionists magnified the numbers of

fugitives so as to suggest the unstable

nature of the southern institution and to

show the extent to which they were help-

ing to undermine it. Southerners exag-

gerated the numbers escaping in order to

show the magnitude of their property

losses and the extent of the concerted

efforts in the North to violate a provision

of the constitution. After the war, count-

less reminiscences of elderly people, ac-

cepted in uncritical fashion by numerous

historians, perpetuated the legend.

Professor Gara utilizes a variety of

sources in his revisionist study, and from

them successfully demonstrates that too

much that is fanciful has been associated

with the Underground Railroad. He feels

that most slaves preferred freedom to

servitude, but looked upon their existence

in a practical way, and hence did not at-

tempt escape. Those who did, frequently

did not go to the North, which, with its

considerable degree of race prejudice, was

not as much a land of freedom as it was

pictured. He points out that many fleeing

slaves traveled long distances and long

periods of time without assistance, and

hence actually were the heroes to a

greater extent than those who assisted

them. Organized assistance was confined

mostly to localities, and widespread se-

crecy did not exist.

The author feels that Professor Wilbur