The century was nearing its end before a scholar attempted a more comprehensive look at the Underground Railroad. Wilbur H. Siebert, associate professor at Ohio State University, began his research in 1892. He collected accounts from surviving abolitionists, knowing the opportunity to collect these stories would soon end, and he searched through newspapers from the period for additional stories. His book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, was published in 1898. Although noting that the UGRR was not a structured centralized organization, Siebert concluded that it was a highly organized network with many agents in the north guiding fugitive slaves to freedom. Siebert influenced the public perception of the Underground Railroad, a mix of fact and fiction.
But in 1961, Larry Gara published The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad, in which he criticized Siebert’s methodology and his conclusion. Smedley and other UGRR writers were also faulted for sloppy research. As Foner noted, “Gara acknowledged his own debt to the materials his predecessors had gathered, but he chided Siebert for accepting at face value the romanticized reminiscences of ‘old time abolitionists,’ lumping together individuals who occasionally aided a fugitive with those who devoted a great deal of time and effort to such assistance, and exaggerated the degree of organization of their efforts.” Gara criticized Siebert, and other writers like Smedley, for emphasizing the role of white abolitionists, while downplaying or neglecting the role of black abolitionists and black communities that assisted fugitives. Also overlooked in these earlier histories were the many freedom seekers who escaped into the North on their own initiative.
But if Siebert overreached in one direction, Gara, overreached in the opposite direction, minimizing the scope of the Underground Railroad and the role of abolitionists. For a time, historians accepted Gara conclusion and saw no need for further study of the topic. Recently, a resurge of public interest in the topic has led to historians taking a closer look and engaging in thorough studies. Even Gara adjusted his conclusions in the preface of the 1996 edition of his book:
“Of Course, white abolitionists played a significant role, and I had no intention of overlooking them. Were I to write the book again, I would give more recognition to the abolitionists, many of whom risked a great deal to help escaping slaves. Yet it remains undeniable that the slaves themselves actually planned and carried out their runs for freedom. Any aid they received came after they left the slave states and were in territory where they faced return under the terms of the Fugitive Slave law.”
Recent research is developing a more accurate picture of the Underground Railroad, and as Foner notes in Gateway to Freedom, it “is not of the highly organized system with tunnels, codes, and clearly defined routes and stations of popular lore, but of an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time, but which together helped a substantial number of fugitives in the free states and Canada.”
Historians and community organizations are continuing the research, seeking and investigating local stories related to the resistance to slavery. Stories of people escaping enslavement, stories of individuals and groups assisting them, stories of slave catchers hunting them and kidnappers looking to profit from the system are all pieces contributing to our understanding of what we broadly define as the history of the Underground Railroad. Verifying and putting together all these pieces to form the larger story, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is the goal of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom project.