Few events or movements in American history have maintained as strong a hold on the popular imagination as the Underground Railroad (UGRR). Its narrative of struggle and triumph, dramatized by the exploits of conductors like Harriet Tubman, leave school children rapt from the earliest days of their social studies education. It is the sort of history they do not forget as they grow into adulthood. Yet, as Cheryl Janifer LaRoche demonstrates in this important new book, what has lingered in Americans’ memory over time has vastly oversimplified the reality of the UGRR.
Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance turns the reader’s attention away from one of the most enduring elements of the UGRR legend—white abolitionists and the “stations” in their cellars and attics—to focus on the contributions of free black communities scattered throughout southern Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. It was in these places, and in the families and churches (especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church) within them, that freedom seekers received crucial protection and began forging new lives after slavery. “Preachers were prime leaders,” LaRoche writes while widening the historical lens on the UGRR, “and their churches [End Page 89] unsuspected stations” (p. 14). LaRoche thus restores the work of free black people to the story of the UGRR, encouraging readers to see beyond the iconic image of valiant white abolitionists harboring helpless freedom seekers that dominates the popular imagination.
Yet, LaRoche does more than offer a new, expanded interpretation of the UGRR. She also provides a new interdisciplinary methodology for researching this history. In some of the most compelling sections of this book, LaRoche urges scholars of the UGRR to get beyond traditional historical sources and to employ a “cultural landscape” approach too. This means treating “the land as a document” and utilizing archaeology to make visible what were often ephemeral communities that left few to no written records behind (p. ix). LaRoche employs this methodology to great effectiveness, seeing in caves, waterways, iron furnaces, and church cemeteries a “geography of resistance” that both intersects with and expands the traditionally understood routes of the UGRR. An effective illustration of this point is made with a map that painstakingly connects the locations of these newly found black settlements with previously known UGRR locations (p. 140). The proximity of the two sets of UGRR sites is striking and illustrates LaRoche’s larger point that these free black communities were not marginal but instead deeply and centrally involved in the everyday work of the UGRR.
Readers of the Register will also appreciate LaRoche’s reclamation of these communities for what they reveal about Kentucky’s freedom-seeking men and women and what happened to them once they crossed the border into free states. In Miller Grove, Illinois, a community founded by former slaves from Tennessee, Kentuckians might have found seclusion in Sand Cave or positioned themselves on the lookout point of Crow Knob, as they made their way through the state and into Indiana. In Lick Creek, Indiana, established by free blacks from North Carolina and their Quaker allies, fleeing slaves would have found a settlement twenty miles from Kentucky’s border that grew to the size of fifteen hundred acres—a settlement in which freed blacks owned property and worshiped in the community’s “focal point,” the AME Church (p. 63). White Kentuckians may have been [End Page 90] tenacious in their hold on slavery through 1865, but, as this book powerfully illustrates, black Kentuckians had established well-worn paths to freedom long before then.
LaRoche notes that more research of this type is needed to fully comprehend the extent of the UGRR’s geography. Fortunately for anyone who takes up that challenge, she has offered an exemplary model of nuanced, interdisciplinary scholarship that should guide any future work on the UGRR, or on African American history more generally.
AMY MURRELL TAYLOR teaches history at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of The...