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Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad

The Geography of Resistance

Cheryl Janifer LaRoche

Publication Year: 2013

This enlightening study employs the tools of archaeology to uncover a new historical perspective on the Underground Railroad. Unlike previous histories of the Underground Railroad, which have focused on frightened fugitive slaves and their benevolent abolitionist accomplices, Cheryl Janifer LaRoche focuses instead on free African American communities, the crucial help they provided to individuals fleeing slavery, and the terrain where those flights to freedom occurred. This study foregrounds several small, rural hamlets on the treacherous southern edge of the free North in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. LaRoche demonstrates how landscape features such as waterways, iron forges, and caves played a key role in the conduct and effectiveness of the Underground Railroad. Rich in oral histories, maps, memoirs, and archaeological investigations, this examination of the "geography of resistance" tells the new, powerful, and inspiring story of African Americans ensuring their own liberation in the midst of oppression.

Published by: University of Illinois Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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List of Figures

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

This book presents a place-based study of free Black communities in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The humble settlements of Rocky Fork, Miller Grove, Lick Creek, and Poke Patch highlight Underground Railroad activities using vital elements of what I term the “geography of resistance.” By using...

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pp. xv-xx

Gladys Marie Fry set me on this path years ago by opening my eyes and my ears to the power of one’s story. Through her, I became a better listener, and I am deeply appreciative of all who listened as I spoke or who critiqued aspects of this work. I am grateful to venerable bibliophile and collector Charles Blockson, the modern father of Underground Railroad research...

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pp. 1-18

The Underground Railroad movement secretly operated in conjunction with free Black communities and their historic Black churches. Peering at these sites through a cultural landscape lens allows a new perspective for understanding the relationship between free Black communities, the Black...

Part I: Free Black Communities

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1. Rocky Fork, Illinois: Oral Tradition as Memory

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pp. 21-42

Communities as old as Rocky Fork carry a large measure of oral tradition and memory. Accounts of the settlement’s activism survived through oral tradition, memory, and newspaper stories, as well as recollections of local families and communities. With much of their history standing outside traditional...

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2. Miller Grove, Illinois: Linking a Free Black Community to the Underground Railroad

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pp. 43-56

The stories of the free Black community at Miller Grove had no known historical connections to the Underground Railroad. The enclave was not included in the Underground Railroad legends of Illinois. Historical documents and letters supported by archaeological research gave shape to the...

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3. Lick Creek, Indiana: A Quaker Connection

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pp. 57-70

A little graveyard is the only clue that the Lick Creek settlement once existed in the southeast corner of Paoli Township, Orange County, in southern Indiana (see map 1). The archaeological remains of the African American settlement once known as “Little Africa” are twenty miles north of the Kentucky...

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4. Poke Patch, Ohio: A Different Route

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pp. 71-84

Ohio’s sustained involvement in the Underground Railroad made the state a viable destination for anyone seeking freedom in the Northwest. At Poke Patch in western Gallia County the Underground Railroad story and African American participation were documented by Underground Railroad...

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Part II: Geographies of Resistance

Part I tilled the soil so that part II could bear the fruit. In moving away from the individual sites, chapter 5 takes a collective look at how people escaping slavery exploited landforms and landscape features in the service of freedom. This section extends escape routes beyond the iconic...

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5. The Geography of Resistance

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pp. 87-102

Harriet Tubman thought of freedom as a distinctive destination with dimension, boundaries, and above all safety. When she crossed that “magic line” dividing “the land of bondage from the land of freedom,” she lamented that no one was there to welcome her.1 At the moment of liberation, Tubman...

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6. Rethinking African American Migration

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pp. 103-124

The caves, mountainous terrain, lookout points, and forests that provided isolated, difficult to penetrate landscapes for the residents of Rocky Fork or Miller Grove, or at Lick Creek or Poke Patch, characterize hallmarks of maroon communities formed by escaped slaves across the Black Atlantic...

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Part III: Family, Faith, and Fraternity

The final section fits together the pieces of the Underground Railroad puzzle to form a new understanding of how the Black family, church, and community operated as a powerful yet often unrecognized engine within the movement. Chapter 7 connects family, church, and community...

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7. Family, Church, Community: Pillars of the Black Underground Railroad Movement

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pp. 127-144

African American communities connected through family relations and intermarriage, church organizations, benevolent societies, and the fraternal structure of the Prince Hall Masons. Despite the fact that the average escapee from slavery was a young single male, maintaining family connections...

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8. Faith and Fraternity

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pp. 145-155

Black convention meetings and fraternal societies fused activists and free people of color together with childhood friends, schoolmates, and former slaves. Prominent participants representing Black churches or the Free and Accepted Masons routinely interacted with Underground Railroad operatives...

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9. Destination Freedom

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pp. 156-162

Free Blacks carried out much of the clandestine work of the Underground Railroad as they probed the meaning of freedom in pre–Civil War America. Covert works of African Americans drove the efforts inside one of the world’s most successful resistance movements. Placing the Underground...


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pp. 163-166


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pp. 167-190


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pp. 191-218


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pp. 219-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780252095894
E-ISBN-10: 0252095898
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252038044

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 884547449
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Underground Railroad -- Indiana.
  • Underground Railroad -- Illinois.
  • Underground Railroad -- Ohio.
  • Fugitive slaves -- United States -- History.
  • African Americans -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History.
  • African Americans -- Antiquities.
  • Excavations (Archaeology) -- United States.
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