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The Underground Railroad: Separating Myth from Fact

I grew up in a house built in 1812, and there was one room in the basement that my grandmother believed had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

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The room was more of a cave. There was a doorway with a high sill you had to step over, and the walls and floor were dirt. There was no light fixture, no windows, no shelving, nothing to indicate what this room was used for before my grandparents bought the house in 1952.

When I lived there, nothing was kept in this basement room.

I don't know if my grandmother was right about the room being a stop on the Underground Railroad, but it would have made strategic sense. The house was in Massachusetts, quite near the Atlantic coastline, and in the 1800s, a mill thrived along the banks of the nearby river. There was plenty of traffic moving around the house, plenty of opportunity for escaped slaves to make their way to this spot of safety.

I kept thinking about this basement room while working on our forthcoming book, The Underground Railroad: Navigate the Journey from Slavery to Freedom. Because while I'd grown up imagining slaves hiding in the dark basement below, I had no idea what people really went through in their bid for freedom.

I didn't know about being hunted by dogs, by being turned in even as they stepped foot in a free state, or about the pain of leaving loved ones behind as they took a rare opportunity for escape. I didn't know about the discomfort and pain of living in an attic for seven years before it was safe to flee again. I didn't know about the desperation that led someone to have himself sealed in a shipping crate and sent north, relying on a few drilled air holes to get him to freedom.

Judy Dodge Cummings does a remarkable job bringing these stories to life. Read this excerpt from The Underground Railroad:

On a bitterly cold night in the winter of 1838, a black woman carrying an infant walked toward the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Suddenly, dogs began to bay. The woman raced to the water’s edge, a plank in one hand, her baby in the other. With her first step on the ice, the woman’s foot fell through. She yanked her leg up and ran toward the Ohio shore. Suddenly, she fell through the ice. Pushing her baby ahead of her on the ice, the fugitive levered herself up with the plank. She crept along on her belly until she finally reached the opposite shore and collapsed.

That's the story of how the woman who became the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's heroin, Eliza, in her book Uncle Tom's Cabin found her freedom.

Another point that Judy makes clear is that much of what we think we know about the Underground Railroad isn't actually proven. Because people who used the trail and who served as conductors and stationmasters had to be secretive, there isn't much documented evidence. What we do know only scratches the surface of this lasting legacy, one that shows the power of desperation, human spirit, and hope.



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