Ep. 39 The Underground Railroad

GLENETTE TILLEY TURNER: My mother said that she couldn't think of any period between the time of the Underground Railroad where people stood up to be counted for one another and took great risks. And you know, it was great ingenuity and trust until the period of Dr. King in the Civil Rights Movement.

HEATHER ATWOOD: That’s historian and author Glennette Tilley Turner. Turner serves on the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Advisory Committee. The Underground Railroad was the largest act of civil disobedience in this country since the American Revolution. It was the first racially integrated civil rights movement in U.S. history. Blacks, whites and Native Americans were all participants in the Underground Railroad. When we found traces of the Underground Railroad in Illinois' 14th Congressional District, we began to read and think more about it. We began to hear lessons in this history to consider today. [MidPod theme music]

HEATHER: This is The MidPod. I'm Heather Atwood with Nicie Panetta. We're two moms traveling America to chronicle what may be the most important set of elections in our lifetime.

HEATHER: Chapter 1. It wasn't safe. It wasn't easy. We start this Underground Railroad episode at the Sheldon Peck Homestead in Lombard, Illinois. This is where we met Glennette Tilley Turner, who we heard at the beginning of this episode. The homestead is part of the National Park Service's Network to Freedom. Sheldon Peck was a 19th-Century portrait painter and also a radical abolitionist. He aided many escaping slaves, or freedom seekers, passing through Illinois. His son, Frank Peck, left a diary recording his father's Underground Railroad activity. At one point Sheldon Peck housed seven freedom seekers at one time on the property. He also had 13 children. Ole Charlie was an escaped slave and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He went back and forth across state lines helping others escape to freedom, and he lived with the Pecks for a while. As we will hear in a minute, freedom seekers left Missouri by crossing the Mississippi River. Glennette Tilley Turner told us this.

TURNER: There were a number of river entry points in Illinois: Alton, Chester, Rock Island are examples, and Quincy of course. And in many cases there were people, like in Quincy, there was a lumber yard owner who was very involved in the Underground Railroad. However, it was not generally known until he died and the church was filled with black people whose descendants had been aided by this man.

HEATHER: The executive director of the museum, Sarah Richardt, explained why Illinois was so important to the Underground Railroad.

SARAH RICHARDT: Geography. I mean, really, we're a free state and free means that if you had your freedom papers you are free. If you didn't have your freedom papers you would be locked up, sold, whipped, all those things. Even in Illinois. I mean, this is happening in many free states across - but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal in any free state, in any state in the Union, to help somebody who had escaped slavery. You would lose your home. You would be fined a significant amount of money - I believe was about a thousand dollars you would be fined if you were caught helping. And that's in a free state. The reason here, specifically, was geography, because people are leaving Missouri. The easiest way to get out of Missouri is across the Mississippi River, and now you're in Illinois.

HEATHER: As Richardt said, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made not returning fleeing slaves to their so-called "owners," or not assisting in that process, a federal crime even in free states. The passage of this act fueled moral outrage in the Free States. people in the North were seeing first hand the hideous realities of ownership and they were being forced under federal law to comply with the immorality of this law. Richardt described the dangerous culture that just got worse.

RICHARDT: What Frank Peck says in his diaries, which I think is really, really important, he said, you know, "if somebody came to the door and somebody is hiding here, they hid because you don't know what's in your neighbor's heart." And I think that was the most important thing, is that you don't know what's in your neighbor's heart and you could be doing something that is, you know, saving the world and you don't know what your neighbor's thinking of it. So even if they were here and they were safe and there's not a bounty hunter coming across the river - coming across the Mississippi River - every single person they encountered they had to be suspect of. So it was not safe. It was not easy.

HEATHER: Chapter 2. If I don't go now, I don't know what's going to happen to me. Brenda Stevenson is an author and Professor of history and African-American studies at UCLA. Stevenson confirmed for us that nothing about the Underground Railroad - nothing about escaping slavery was safe or easy.

BRENDA STEVENSON: It was, you know, just the most courageous thing in the world to leave because oftentimes you didn't know if there was anyone who was going to help you. And on top of it, even if you were told by somebody, for example you know, who had been to the North and who was part of it, they could find help at this particular farmhouse or this particular storefront or this particular church. The safe houses changed all the time. They had to because if you maintained this kind of operation, or were part of it, it was only a matter of time before you would draw suspicion in one way or another. So these designated places were always moving.

HEATHER: Stevenson explained just what drove freedom seekers to make this very dangerous journey.

STEVENSON: People oftentimes were really, really pushed beyond what we can imagine to make that decision to finally leave. And oftentimes people would stay in slavery unless something very horrific was happening at that particular moment. For example, if you were going to be sold away from your family, or your child was going to be sold away, or you were being continuously abused and you knew at one point you would be killed or a family member would be killed. These were the kinds of things that really encouraged people to just, "I have to go now. If I don't go now, I don't know what's going to happen to me." So some of the insecurity of slave life is what really made slaves or enslaved people want to leave. When they got to a point and they knew that their families were going to be dispersed, that they were going to be sold away or that they were going to be killed, then they said, "I'm going to take the risk. I'm going to try to go."

HEATHER: We asked Stevenson to describe for us just who was the Underground Railroad? Who were the participants in this enormous act of civil disobedience?

STEVENSON: Most of these people tend to be middle class, educated to a certain extent, at least literate. A lot of them are of course deeply religious Christian and you find them on all walks of life, whether you're talking about teachers or ministers, some politician, artisans, skilled workers, farmers, women, men, elderly people, middle aged people, younger people. That's interesting thing and really the miraculous and wonderful thing about persons who worked in the Underground Railroad is that it drew on large categories of people going across many different boundaries, whether they were generational boundaries, racial boundaries, gender boundaries, class boundaries, etc.

HEATHER: Stevenson says this diversity was helpful because the people who were pro-slavery could not identify a single group leading the Underground Railroad. The secrecy of the organization was paramount.

STEVENSON: So it's secret not only to those persons of the outside but also to those persons who are the inside. Again, it was a need to know basis. You had to know the next Underground Railroad stop, but you didn't have to know the one after that. This was an order to protect those persons who were participating and to avoid infiltration by outsiders who really wanted to undermine the organization.

HEATHER: In 1998 Congress passed the Network the Freedom Act, directing the National Park Service to identify and honor stops and participants on the Underground Railroad. We asked Stevenson why it's so important to keep the history of the Underground Railroad alive.

STEVENSON: There's always been this pull and push between you know, freedom and oppression within our country. And so one of the things that this act was meant to do was to uncover the extent of the Underground Railroad to really celebrate those persons, whether they were African descended or European descended, who participated in this very important movement towards freedom, and in participating in this movement toward freedom, embracing the founding ideals of the nation. And I think we often talk about this huge divide between slavery and freedom from the past. Now we're talking about this huge divide between being a legal citizen and not being a legal citizen but still residing in this nation that has this ideal for equality and for care and for protection of one's family and property and freedom. And so I think it's an incredible moment in our history where we again face this gulf between what our ideals are and what the reality is at least for some people within our society. [music]

HEATHER: Chapter 3. They said, we're not going to send those people back. Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He has written extensively on reconstruction and history of the United States race relations. He's authored over 20 books and won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner compares the moral courage of the Underground Railroad to many activist movements today.

ERIC FONER: This word didn't exist but there were places in the North that basically consider themselves sanctuary cities before the Civil War. New Bedford, Massachusetts was called The Fugitives' Gibraltar. They had a strong abolitionist movement, a strong free black community. If you got to New Bedford you were pretty safe. It would be very hard to apprehend someone there. You had churches that gave sanctuary to fugitive slaves. The Plymouth Church in Brooklyn here hid fugitives in the basement and sent them along. You had laws passed in the North like the laws in many states today saying that local officials cannot cooperate with people who are trying to apprehend fugitive slaves. If the federal government's doing this that's their business. But we are not going to enforce this law or cooperate with it. They were judges who freed fugitives and in other words there were many people who simply were not willing to accept - whether you call them refugees, fugitives, migrants, whatever word you want to use - people fleeing oppression, fleeing inequality, seeking a better life. They said, "we're not going to send these people back." And I think there's a lot of parallels between that period and the period today where the federal government is trying to just nab people who have been parts of communities for a long time, send them back and many local communities are refusing to cooperate with that.

HEATHER: Foner says activist movements have always been responsible for expanding freedom in this country. I wrote a book, The Story of American Freedom, in which the dynamic of the expansion of freedom in America is not just Supreme Court decisions or presidential proclamations but is these grassroots struggles, whether it's the abolitionist movement against slavery or the women's rights movement or the labor movement or the gay movement and others in the 1960s. This is what has expanded freedom and equality for everybody in the country. I think you know, looking back, we have to - just like before the Civil War we have to ask ourselves, "well who are we as a society? Who do we sympathize with in the 1850s, the slave catchers? Is that the people we want to emulate, that we want to - 150 years, people are going to look at us and say they were the slave catchers of the 19-teens. Or do we sympathize with the abolitionists - even if they did break the law, they were operating as William Seward, the senator from New York said, according to a higher law: the law of justice, morality, religion, whatever it was that motivated them. You know, to me that's a heroic period in American history and those are the people we should emulate, the antislavery people, not the ones who said, "well look this is the law, we got to abide by it. I don't really know. You know, we can't really do anything." There are plenty of lessons in that history for us. [music]

HEATHER: So who will history declare the heroes of today, the Republican Congress which has attacked Americans' access to health care? Whose silence has been complicit in Trump's misogyny? Or the millions of women around the world who marched? The NRA or the Parkland kids? ICE officers taking children away from their families in the name of protecting our border, or the people who have exposed this savage policy: journalists, federal employees working on the insides of the detention centers, activists. Or maybe it will be the immigration officers who refuse to enforce the family separation policy, or the Washington state lawyers who promised to represent these federal employees pro bono. The airlines who've declared that they will not fly these children away from their parents to distant facilities, who refuse to participate in or profit from federal policy separating children from their families. Or maybe it will be the over 500 governors and mayors who have declared their states and municipalities sanctuaries. What's clear is that history does not celebrate the slave catchers. The time we are living in is making new heroes every day. Heroes out of kids, out of people starting GoFundMe sites, out of ordinary people who suddenly crack at the extremities of injustice. Every single day, there are more and more heroes. [MidPod theme music]

HEATHER: You can connect with The MidPod on Twitter and Facebook @TheMidPod and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Rate and review us on Apple Podcasts; the more people who rate and review, the more people will find our interviews and our congressional district profiles, and tell all your friends. We want to let you know that because we're getting closer to the midterms, The MidPod is now releasing two episodes a week: one on Tuesday and one on Friday. And the one on Friday is most likely going to be a candidate interview. As we get through the primaries and people are getting their nominations, we want you to hear more from these compelling candidates. Our music is by Cercie Miller and the Cercie Miller Quartet. Cercie is releasing a new album soon and we will let you know when that comes out. The MidPod is a production of Bird on the Wing Media. The executive producer is Helen Barrington and the mix engineer is James Donahue. The program is produced at Whiskey Lane Productions in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Thanks so much for listening. And see you next time.

Eunice Panetta