My family ran a station on the underground railroad

My family ran a station on the underground railroad.  I mentioned this on FB, and Francis asked to hear more about it.  There is not a lot to tell.

It is 8 parts myth and family lore, one part circumstantial and one part proven fact.  There would be at least one way, I think, to prove another fact, but nobody has ever bothered.

There were a pair of cousins who owned adjoining farms.  One of them is still owned by my mom, the other has left the family.  The original house in my family’s possession burned in the forties, I think.  Maybe the twenties. The cellar was filled in just a couple years ago as it was a safety hazard.  In my family stories of the whisperings and shuffling in the night were passed down- there was a little girl in the family who would sometimes wake up and find a black child in bed with her.  She never saw black people by day, and she was fascinated. Sometimes, the story goes, or once, the story goes, she licked her finger and rubbed it on the child’s skin to see if the colour came off. In the morning the child would be gone.   It was never spoken of by day.  Later she learned that her parents were hiding black people who were running from slavery into freedom. She grew up and told the stories to her nieces and nephews (I feel like she never married), and they told theirs, and one of them was my mother.  That’s the 8 parts myth and family lore.  I’m guessing that it was cold and children were put to bed with the little girl to warm up, or maybe because it was assumed that was the safest place to hide them.

The other family that now own the property that was owned by the other cousin… their son was in high school with our son, and the mom was our dentist’s receptionist, and she tells us that it has been proven that her house was a station on the underground railroad.  That’s the one part proven fact.

The two original properties are all still farmland, but have since been divided and slashed by a state highway, a major highway, and also a county road. My uncle told me that during the twenties when the state road went in, they discovered a cellar about halfway between the two properties, unmarked on any maps or blueprints, hidden, and previously unknown.    He tells me they said, “Ahhh, so that’s where they hid their ‘passengers,’ how interesting!” and then they filled in the cellar and finished laying down the state road over the top of it.  That’s the one part that probably could be proven if somebody were driven to do what it takes to find out, and also had the resources and some state backing.  My uncle knew his local and family history and never got a story wrong that anybody knows of.

Circumstantial: The cousins were members of a church denomination known for its antislavery stance and many members were part of the underground railroad in one capacity or another. The state had hundreds of underground railway stations, and they acknowledge that only a few have been documented.  Documentation is difficult, because, of course, it was a secret, a dangerous secret.  Few of the people they helped through intended to stay in the state as they were heading to Canada and this was a stop on the way, so there wouldn’t be local resources from black families.*

So that’s the story.  I love the story, and am proud that these people were my ancestors.  But it’s a personal thing.  I’m proud, or maybe gratified is the better word. AFter all, I didn’t do any of those brave, worthy, and exciting things. I just happened to be born from the genetic line of those people 11 decades or more after the fact.  It’s cool, but it’s essentially a matter of luck. It’s cool to be so lucky in one’s ancestors, but I don’t believe in blaming people or blessing people for accidents of birth.

*Addendum:  In fact, at one point in the state’s uneven history, the state government made it illegal for free blacks to even stay in the state.  I had always assumed (as one would) this was purely for racist, ugly reasons, and I  still believe that is largely true.  But in looking up regional underground railroad history stuff recently, I read that the background of events that led up to that law included the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act and the problems caused by emboldened slave hunters who would come in to the state in ever larger and furious numbers.  They were basically vigilante kidnappers and murderers,  tracking slaves to their hiding places, beating and sometimes murdering those protecting them, and kidnapping free blacks who had never been slaves. So it was a little bit more complicated than I’d assumed.  I still doubt the gist of it was noble intentions, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum, it was a response to the violence of slavers, and there were some good intentions that muddied the discussion and clouded judgement.

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7 Comments

  1. Frances
    Posted August 24, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!

  2. Posted August 25, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    That’s very cool! I’ve started digging into my family history some. It’s fascinating stuff.

  3. Jucinda Willoughby
    Posted August 26, 2017 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    If you haven’t, read Levi cousin’s biography. It is a bit long, but his work with the underground railroad is detailed in it and it’s amazing.

    • Jucinda Willoughby
      Posted August 26, 2017 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      If you haven’t, read Levi coffin’s biography. It is a bit long, but his work with the underground railroad is detailed in it and it’s amazing.t

      • Headmistress
        Posted August 27, 2017 at 3:11 am | Permalink

        I haven’t, but my mother took one of our daughters on a tour to his house and some related spots.

  4. Frances
    Posted August 26, 2017 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    “So it was a little bit more complicated than I’d assumed. ”

    Things so often are once we start digging. Still, all kudos to the courage of those ancestors!

  5. Frances
    Posted August 26, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    By the way, the “notify me of followup comments” doesn’t seem to be working lately.

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