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Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad.

Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad As Told by Levi Coffin and William Still Edited by George and Willene Hendrick, Ivan R. Dee, Publishers February 2004, $24.95, ISBN 1-566-63545-4

When it comes to the Underground Railroad, historians may never separate fact from fiction. The very nature of the story seems to conspire against discovery. This addition to the subject, though useful for younger audiences, will bring us no closer to the facts.

Independent scholars George and Willene Hendrick have abridged the nearly twelve hundred pages of two colossal collections, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880) and William Still's The Underground Railroad (1872), into a single compact volume. Levi Coffin (1798-1877) was a Quaker who operated "stations" of the Underground in Indiana and Ohio. By his own testimony, Coffin was "the reputed President of the Underground Railroad." Late in life, he published his many diary entries relating to the two thousand or more fugitives who, according to the title page of Reminiscences, gained their freedom through his instrumentality."

William Still (1821-1902) was the self-taught son of ex-slaves. His mother, a runaway, headed the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia. He also served as the clerk of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery and later turned his files into the classic source for fugitive slave testimony, The Underground Railroad.

In the story of "A Slave-Hunter Outwitted," we learn that the Underground Railroad "was a Southern institution; that it had its origins in the slave states. For the sake of money, people in the South would help slaves to escape" (p. 68). Coffin paid particular attention to John Fairfield, a southern abolitionist who was "always ready to make money from his services," but, if the slaves had no money, "he helped them all the same" (p. 81). The Coffin selection ended with the tragic story of Margaret Garner who, in 1856, "killed her child rather than see it taken back to slavery" (p. 91).

From William Still's exhaustive compilation of fugitive narratives ... Still retells the amazing saga of William and Ellen Craft. Ellen was "flair enough to pass for white;' enabling her to become a young, lame, deaf, rheumatic planter with a "bold air of superiority" that cleverly camouflaged the distance she kept from others as her now "slave" William respectfully attended to the details of their voyage to freedom (pp. 191-192).

Two chapters, about a third of the Still section of the book, relate the fascinating slave-hunting tragedy of Lancaster Country in 1851, dubbed the "Treason at Christiana." After escaped slaves shot and killed the slave-hunter who pursued them, federal officials failed to coerce local Quaker residents to assist in the hunt. Eventually, posses were raised, newspapers assailed abolitionists and fugitives as insurrectionists, three whites and twenty-seven blacks were put in prison under the charge of treason, many more were accused, and a trial that included Thaddeus Stevens for the defense was conducted.

According to Still, "it was, doubtless, the most important trial that ever took place in this country relative to the Underground Railroad passengers, and in its results more good was brought out of evil that can easily be estimated."

Nevertheless, by merely passing on tales that have long been available, there is little here to advance our understanding of this mythologized institution.... Slaves did indeed flee for freedom, most on their own steam. However, running from slavery was a very dangerous business, for slaves and their accomplices. The forces stacked against them were completely overwhelming. Idealistic representations of the UGRR exaggerate the succor fugitives actually received, and the overwhelming circumstances that surrounded the majority of slaves.

We want to believe that a systematic effort existed to assist bondsmen in their quest for freedom. Yet, the very lack of such a system was one reason so few slaves took flight, and that fewer still succeeded.

High school students and undergraduates will find Fleeing for Freedom a friendlier read than either of the texts from which it was taken, but the thoughtful among them will be left with more questions than answers. After the practical queries about the number of actual escapees or accomplices, there are some important philosophical matters to address. How has America chosen to remember slavery? By celebrating the brave few who resisted the "peculiar institution;' do we divert attention from the blemish and injustice that slavery brought forth? Let us reach for a candid appraisal of the past. We might begin by remembering that the line to liberty was covered with thorns.

R. Owen Williams is a graduate student at Yale University.

The review was excerpted from (Copyright (c) 2004 by H-Net.: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. Citation: R. Owen Williams. "Review of George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick, eds, Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad, H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews, July, 2004. URL:
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Author:Williams, R. Owen
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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