- Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance by Cheryl Janifer LaRoche
A number of studies have appeared over the last few years that have expanded our appreciation of the range and complexity of the Underground Railroad (UGRR). LaRoche adds her voice to those who insist that more attention has to be placed on the pivotal role played by northern free black communities in the movement to undermine slavery. Hers is mainly a study of three black rural settlements, Rocky Fork and Miller Grove in Illinois, Lick Creek in Indiana, and Poke Patch in Ohio. It also has a wider frame of reference, taking in some of the many other black rural settlements (as well as a few of the urban communities) that were pivotal to what she inventively calls the “geography of resistance.” Rocky Fork stood on 300 acres three miles west of Alton and was the first port of call for those fleeing slavery along the Missouri River and from southwest Missouri. Established in 1844, Miller Grove, which was settled by freed families from Tennessee, was a beacon for slaves escaping from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. Lick Creek, located in a remote area southeast of Paoli, Orange County, seventeen miles from the Ohio River, was settled in 1817 by freeborn African Americans. By 1855 the settlement occupied 1,500 acres. Poke Patch in western Gallia County was settled in an area whose economy relied heavily on iron-ore furnaces. Situated where they were, these settlements were usually the first stop on the line to freedom. [End Page 545]
LaRoche is also committed to expanding existing knowledge of what she insists is a much more complex and developed system of “pathways to freedom” than historians of the movement have acknowledged (84). This rather limited approach, she argues, has underestimated the number and variety of avenues of escape developed to ferry fugitives to safety. There were, among others, caves in which they hid, waterways along which they traveled, and iron furnaces, especially those in southern Ohio, where they found refuge and temporary employment. Together they formed what she calls the “landscape of freedom” (90).
LaRoche also sets out to demonstrate the pivotal role played by the black church, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church that, she argues, was the backbone of these communities. They were beacons of freedom attracting slaves on the run. It is this institution and the ministers who led them, she insists, rather than the popular and largely unproven claims of hidden tunnels, passageways, and closets, that should be the focus of examinations of the UGRR. She also insists that more attention should be paid to black fraternal societies, although given the nature of these organizations it is almost impossible to discern what role they actually played. Together these institution and societies, established and sustained by African Americans, both protected and sustained the fleeing slave and provided vital links to the world beyond slavery. “The first stops out of slavery,” she observes, “frequently consisted of internal, church-based paths to freedom and salvation” (3). While she does draw on traditional sources, she insists that these need to be supplemented by oral histories, archeological explorations and landscape studies if we are ever to arrive at a fuller understanding of the movement’s complex history and the role it played in undermining slavery.
Her approach produces some genuinely original insights into the workings of the movement, such as her exploration of the activities of antislavery missionaries from the American Missionary Association in and around Miller Grove in the 1850s, which provide invaluable information on the effort to undermine support for slavery in an area notoriously hostile to abolition. They not only sold Bibles, they also clandestinely distributed copies of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star, as well as antislavery books and pamphlets, all the while working closely with the black community to protect fugitives. But there are other sections of the book that leave many assertions unanswered. She frequently asserts, as she...