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Quaker History THE BULLETIN of FRIENDS HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 51Spring Number — 1962No. 1 FRIENDS AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD By Larry Gara1 TN The Drums of Morning, a novel of the abolition movement, -*¦' Philip Van Doren Stern pictures the mastermind of the underground railroad as Henrietta Norton, an aged, bedridden Quaker who directed its clandestine operations from her home in the Pennsylvania mountains. According to the fictionalized account, the underground was a highly-organized institution with centralized control and a mysterious grapevine telegraph to inform both abolitionist conductors and the slaves of all events that might contribute to its success or failure.2 Shirley Graham also included a description 1 Professor of History at Grove City College, author of The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961). A grant from the Penrose Fund of the American Philosophical Society made it possible for the author to complete the research upon which this article is based. 2 Philip Van Doren Stern, The Drums of Morning (New York, 1942), pp. 325-432. 4 Quaker History of the underground railroad in her fictionalized biography of Frederick Douglass. The train, she wrote, "might be a peddlar's cart, an open wagon filled with hay, or the family carryall, driven by a quiet man in a wide-brimmed Quaker hat, who spoke softly to the ladies sitting beside him, neatly dressed in gray, with Quaker bonnets on their heads and veils over their faces."3 Injecting a strong dose of Quakerism into the secret institution was not original with these writers. They only added to a tradition of fiction-writing which Harriet Beecher Stowe had begun in 1852 when she created Simeon Halliday, the saintly conductor of the underground railroad in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The association of Quakers with the underground railroad is a well known ingredient of traditional Americana. A historian of Stark County, Ohio, pointed out that runaway slaves in that area "soon learned that the Quakers were not only willing to assist them in escaping but often went to considerable trouble and expense to accomplish this result."4 In 1901 when workmen dismantling a New York house found a secret chamber in it, newspaper reports alleged that the place had been "one of the chain of stations on the 'Underground railroad' by which Quakers and other friends of the negro sent fugitive slaves to the north."5 Mere mention of the mysterious institution often brings to mind an intrepid and quick-witted underground railroad conductor who, under closer scrutiny, more often than not turns out to be Mrs. Stowe's own Simeon Halliday, or a reasonably accurate facsimile. For millions of readers spanning several generations, Uncle Tom's Cabin contributed to the popular conception of one aspect of the American past. But the reputation of Quakers for underground railroading rests on other foundations, some more substantial, and some almost as shaky as fiction. The historic antislavery witness of 3 Shirley Graham, There Was Once a Slave . . . The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass (New York, 1947), p. 86. 4 Typewritten excerpt from The History of Stark County, Ohio in scrapbook, "The Underground Railroad in Ohio, vol. 10" in the Wilbur H. Siebert Papers in the Ohio Historical Society. 5 Clipping from Boston Evening Record, May 13, 1901, in scrapbook, "The Underground Railroad in New York, vol. 11" in the Wilbur H. Siebert Papers in the Houghton Library of Harvard University. Friends and the Underground Railroad5 Friends, the well-authenticated activities of a number of Quaker abolitionists, and the contents of some reminiscent accounts all added to the popular impression, an impression that frequently ascribes a clearer and more consistent record to the pre-Civil War Quakers than the historical facts warrant. Because of their early opposition to slavery in both England and America, all Quakers are often mistakenly believed to have been abolitionists. The well known efforts of such pioneers of the antislavery cause as John Woolman, Anthony Benezet, Isaac Hopper, and Benjamin Lundy have sometimes overshadowed the true nature of the Quaker concern about slavery. Although by 1776 no member of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends could continue to hold slaves, that decision was the culmination of nearly a century...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 3-19
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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