Cheryl Janifer LaRoche is a lecturer in American studies at the University of Maryland. She answered some questions about her book Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance.
Q: You write that the Underground Railroad is a “well known but poorly understood icon of American lore.” Why do you think the national perception is so muddled and the contributions of free Black communities, Black Churches and fraternal societies are left out of the story?
Cheryl LaRoche: Well, think of it as a perfect storm. Several factors converge leading to the lack of understanding of the contributions and involvement of free Blacks and their organizations in the Underground Railroad. If you rely on standard research strategies you are going to miss much of the story of African American involvement in the Underground Railroad. The organization and activism of free blacks and those who escaped from slavery had to be very secretive since kidnapping and re-enslavement were constant threats and slavery loomed as a very real possibility even for those who had been born free. The story of Solomon Northrup in Twelve Years a Slave is a perfect example. Add to this the fact that those who wrote about the Underground Railroad did so from their own vantage point, often years after the fact, and generally did not have access to, or even know to look for, the stories of black communities, their churches and fraternal societies. Black church histories began mentioning their active role in the Underground Railroad many, many years after the fact. So we end up with the most common and accessible stories repeated over and over until they became part of American lore.
Q: How does archaeology play a critical role in learning about the Underground Railroad?
LaRoche: Archaeology adds another piece to this complex puzzle. As we bring fresh ideas and a new understanding to the geography of the Underground Railroad, the tools that archaeologists use such as surveying, mapping, historical documentation, ethnography all can have a major impact on the discovery of previously unknown sites before a shovel ever goes into the ground. Once we first identify and then locate a community, archaeologists using excavation techniques can give us some idea of the layout and where and how particular families might have lived. Depending on the conditions and the state of preservation, we could possibly learn about what people were growing in their gardens and farms, what they were eating and the material conditions of their lives. And of course, if people think they have tunnels or other underground features we are right for looking more deeply into those controversial questions.
Q: What are the different components of the geography of resistance and how was the land “used in support of freedom?”
LaRoche: Well, I spend an entire chapter laying out the different components of the geography of resistance because it is not just one or two things. Briefly, I would say that the quality of the land where these black settlements can be found, its desirability, or lack of desirability, is probably the key indicator of where African Americans settled in the pre-Civil War period. Add to that the locations of prominent abolitionist centers and their proximity to free black communities, and you can begin to predict where to look for black settlements in relationship to the Underground Railroad. But there is another aspect to the geography of resistance—one that involves the use of the land while freedom seekers are moving through the landscape and physically escaping slavery. River banks, iron furnaces, hollowed trees and caves all become part of the landscape of escape that supported freedom. The heavens too, primarily the North Star figure into that geography of resistance.
Q: Why did you chose to focus on the geographical elements of the Underground Railroad?
LaRoche: Well, I am an archaeologist, after all. But also, if you think about it, the Underground Railroad is a land based operation so focusing on the landscape makes sense. Those escaping slavery had to physically move through the various geographies that I discuss in the book. Whether they were moving from one location to another or finding sanctuary in a community or home, it all had a geographic position. So it seems natural to study the Underground Railroad from that vantage point. It adds an immediacy to the topic. We get to move through the land with those who are escaping slavery and be with them as they get lost or try to navigate their way out of slavery through unknown territory. You can almost feel the freezing river or experience the anxiety that physical obstacles provoked. I think you get a much better understanding of what it really took to escape when you study the geography of the Underground Railroad.
Q: Why were the AME, Baptist Churches, Prince Hall Masons and Quakers so crucial to the Underground Railroad?
LaRoche: These were among the activist organizations involved in the Underground Railroad. While anti-slavery societies often receive the attention of historians and researchers, the churches and fraternal societies were the community action arm where the work was taking place on the ground. All of these are community organizations. People came together to form churches; they had to gather for fraternal meetings so a seamless, logical structure that had nothing to do with escape from slavery was already in place. These denominations, institutions and organizations generally had buildings associated with them, all of this made them useful for the work of the Underground Railroad while not arousing too much suspicion. Repeatedly, the most successful escapes and the most successful operators relied on an air of normalcy combined with astuteness, respectability, piousness and trust as they subverted the slaveholding system.
Q: What role did Black activism in the form of slave narratives, speeches and newspapers etc. have in the Underground Railroad and publicizing methods of escape?
LaRoche: Always, there was a tension between telling too much and not saying enough. Slave narratives and newspapers alerted the public to both the hardships and the dramatic role that the Underground Railroad was playing in helping escapees come out of slavery. At the same time, the methods of escape and those involved also had to be protected. Those who had the ear of the public spoke out against slavery and in some instances people like Jermain Loguen openly taunted slaveholders by describing their work on the Underground Railroad. Most activists were far more vocal about the fact of escape rather than the methods of escape. We are still figuring out those methods and that has been one of the most intriguing aspects of the stories in the book. As I say in the book, they did such a good job that 200 years later we are still trying to figure out exactly how it all operated. And it is the work of free blacks and black communities that has been the most important contribution to the new story of the Underground Railroad. This is the new narrative landscape of the Underground Railroad for the 21st century.