Saturday, July 18, 2015

Not Quite So Underground Railroad, 1850s

When he wrote his Narrative in 1845, Douglass said:
I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which, I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad.
After all, publicity sort of defeated the purpose. But the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and his own growing militancy must have changed his mind.

From Frederick Douglass' Paper, 3 August 1855:

 The U.G.R.R. -- Syracuse Station -- the agent and keeper of the Underground Railroad Depot in this city, Rev. Mr. Loguen, is now busily engaged in providing places for the company of eight fugitives that arrived here on Friday night. He is determined to seek his assistance under like circumstances. We trust that the true lovers of liberty will stand by Loguen in his endeavors in behalf of his poor oppressed brethren who escape from bondage. Those in want of laboring men or women, will do well to call on Loguen, or leave their names with Mr. Wm. E. Abbot. -- Syracuse Journal.
From Frederick Douglass' Paper, 23 July 1858:

To the friends of Humanity:    The entire care of the fugitives who may stop at Syracuse, for comfort and assistance, having been devolved upon me by the Fugitive Aid Society, I hereby give notice that I shall devote myself assiduously to the duties I have undertaken to discharge. I must depend for the support of my family and of the operations I am to conduct, upon the liberality of the friends of freedom, I shall gratefully receive money, clothes and provisions. I will make a faithful use of the same; and will report semi-annually (in Frederick Douglass' Paper, and the Syracuse Standard and Journal) the amounts that I have received and of the numbers of Fugitives that I have sheltered and found homes for. Meanwhile, and at all times, my accounts will be open for the inspection of the friends of the cause.
J.W. Loguen
Syracuse, N.Y. 1858.

The members of the Syracuse Fugitive Aid Society find it no longer convenient nor necessary, to keep up their organization. The labor of sheltering those who flee from Tyranny, providing for their immediate wants, and helping them to find safe homes in this country or Canada, must needs devolve, as it always has devolved, upon a very few individuals. --- Hitherto, since 1850, it has been done for the most part by Rev. J.W. Loguen. He having been a slave and a fugitive himself, knows best how to provide for that class of sufferers, and to guard against imposition.
Mr. Loguen has agreed to devote himself wholly to this humane work; and to depend for the support of himself and family, as well as the maintainance of this Depot on the Under Ground Railroad, upon what the benevolent and friendly may give him.
We, therefore, hereby request, that all fugitives from Slavery,  coming this way, may be directed to the care of Rev. J.W. Loguen; also, that all monies contributed or subscribed may be paid directly to him; and that all clothing or provisions contributed may be sent to his house, or such places as he may designate.
Mr. Loguen will make semi-annual reports of his receipts of money, clothes or provisions; and of the numbers of fugitives taken care of and provided for by him; and he will submit his accounts at any time, to the inspection of any persons who are interested in the success of the Underground Railroad.
Syracuse, Sept. 17, 1857.
Those two notices appeared in Frederick Douglass's Paper through the late 1850s until he stopped publishing the weekly in 1860 (he continued publishing Douglass' Monthly until 1863). Loguen's reports of the fugitives whom he had helped also appeared in the paper.

When I first moved north from Texas, it seemed that every town and every house built before 1950 claimed to be a stop on the Underground Railroad (and, because I lived in Indiana, everywhere seemed to claim some significance in Abraham Lincoln's childhood -- sort of a mid-west version of "George Washington slept here"). Usually the claim rested the presence of a small closet or cellar room. Even in Mystic, Connecticut, someone who really should have known better said of a historic house, "there is a small cupboard in the dining room. We don't know what it was used for, we don't have any documentation, but we think it might have been a hiding place for runaway slaves."

If you do look at the documentation, however, you will find such things as these notices. Like Douglass said, it was a bit of an "upperground railroad." Not everyone was quite so bold as Loguen -- he was kinda badass in giving the finger to the Fugitive Slave Law. Perhaps the League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts, surpassed him, but they are a story unto themselves. In any case, there are records. William Still recorded the people who showed up at the Philadelphia Antislavery Society's office, and published them later as The Underground Railroad:

The Coffins in Indiana actually did help runaways, and he kept a journal of the people who passed through. The Rochester Ladies' Antislavery Society and Sewing Circle also have a record of the people whom Douglass helped on their way to Canada, and the Census suggests that one or two young men stayed on to apprentice at his papers.

If anyone is interested in digital history, perhaps a database of these freedom-seekers might be an interesting project, not just in the gathering, but also in making an attempt to quantify this sort of resistance and in seeing what other information might emerge.

By the way, remember that this is the site of Loguen's "depot" today:

Remember also that Douglass's son, Lewis, married Loguen's daughter, Amelia. Another Loguen daughter, Sarah "Aunt Tinnie," a doctor, visited Douglass and his second wife in Haiti and there she met the man who became her husband. She's also another story for another time. Douglass had a "sister" (fictive kin) who, after living with the Douglass family for nearly four years, married, moved to Springfield, and joined that League of Gileadites. But, she, too, is another story for another time.

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