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The Ungrounded Railroad.

The whole trip seems like a joke until they see the white man with the gun. The children have paused for yet another warning to stay down and silent when a few boys spot the dimpled crest of a cowboy hat several yards back on the path. In the dusky gloom of the woods, it appears to be floating. Then it begins to glide along the top of the high grass, heading straight for the clump of distracted preteens.

The children, members of a youth group from Fayetteville, North Carolina, are gossiping and giggling, supercharged with the novelty of being out of the city and away from home. Their guide is urging them toward self-control, insisting that mosquitoes are the least of the woods' perils. As if on cue, one of the littlest boys lets loose a bleat, responding not to the guide's admonition but to the fast- approaching hat, now less than five yards away. His high-pitched panic cuts through the chatter, and the rest of the group falls silent.

Rounding a bend in the path, the bearer of the hat comes into full view. He is a middle-aged white man, dressed in a loose brown button- down shirt and a pair of old jeans. He boasts a bold mustache, a sneer and just the start of a paunch. The children, however, notice little of this. They see the rifle.

A collective yelp bursts forth, and then an explosion of adolescent adrenaline propels them all into a flat run, arms and legs untangling and retangling as bodies hurtle away. Several meet in full-body collision.

The guide is rising gingerly from a full-out sprawl, a casualty of the stampede. Brushing off his white linen suit, he begins to holler at them to slow down. The children slow, then stop. The guide looks relieved. His insurance doesn't cover running.

As the owner and lead guide of the Motherland Connextions tour company, Kevin Cottrell has organized this Underground Railroad fugitive-slave re-enactment to teach the children about the past, not to terrify them in the present. This is the company's first commercial re-enactment, and Cottrell would like to see it conclude without any major injuries. Like many members of a burgeoning national "Underground Railroad movement," Cottrell anticipates a bright future for these journeys into the past. He would like nothing more than to be solvent when the current Underground Railroad revival turns into a full-blown renaissance.

Cottrell's brochure boasts that "this tour brings the history alive," but he hadn't expected his fugitives to take their history lessons quite so literally. The boys and girls-respectively, the Promise Keepers (no relation to the religious group) and Steel Magnolias of Fayetteville, North Carolina-are supposed to see the fugitives as role models, the sort of moral example allegedly missing from the lives of today's African-American youths. The Underground Railroad re-enactment is part history, part therapy. In the end, the children, according to their chaperones, are supposed to walk away with "an understanding of their roots," an awareness that "the road has been paved for them."

Still wary, the boys and girls return, walking, to the spot where Cottrell stands with the white man, whom he introduces as Toby the Bounty Hunter. Toby, the husband of Cottrell's office manager, does his best to seem harmless. He rests the butt of the (unloaded) rifle on the ground and allows the children up-close-and-personal inspections. He interrupts Cottrell's lecture on the perfidy of the slave-catcher with helpful hints about loading and firing a black-powder gun. As Cottrell describes the bounty hunter's mercenary motivations, Toby offers an apologetic grimace, as if to emphasize that that was then and this is now.

We're supposed to know about then, of course. Generations of American schoolchildren were taught of Harriet Tubman's bravery long before multiculturalism made her a shoo-in for "diversity studies." In elementary school, they learned about the kind white people of conscience, usually Quakers, who aided helpless fugitives. They learned about secret hand signals, underground tunnels, whispered codes. There has always been some truth in the retellings: The superhuman Tubman really did lead hundreds of fugitives to freedom; the occasional Quaker did house runaways in secret nooks. "The Underground Railroad," however, has always been more false than true. According to most historians of slavery and the Civil War, the grand account of an efficient abolitionist network, a labyrinth of tunnels, an outcry against the evils of slavery, was ever an exaggeration-a myth. The Underground Railroad, even in its heyday, consisted of little more than imaginative propaganda. Despite this, it is more popular, more revered and more celebrated today than at any time since the Civil War.

Thanks to the fervent advocacy of preservationists, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, the Underground Railroad is on the fast track to cultural sanctification as a model of righteousness, rebellion and, most important, interracial cooperation. In the past ten years, a national "Underground Railroad movement" has breathed new life into the fading myth with hundreds of re-enactments, walking tours and bus-and-buffet package deals. The Conner Prairie Living History Museum in Indiana recently hosted hourlong sessions in fugitive-slave make-believe, complete with a slave auction in which "traders" abuse the visitor/slaves. ("Down on your knees, boy! You don't ever look at me!") Several states have created official "Freedom Trails," repackaging fugitives' paths as self-guided auto expeditions. The state of New York now requires that all public school students study the Underground Railroad. In the single most ambitious project to date, the city of Cincinnati is breaking ground on the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an $80 million "museum of conscience" scheduled to open in 2003. Even Congress has tendered its approval. The 1998 Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act dedicates an annual $500,000 for "an enduring national commemorative...program of education, example, reflection, and reconciliation." Another bill established a $24 million, five-year budget to help establish Underground Railroad educational and cultural programs.

For its new disciples, the Underground Railroad serves as a model of multiculturalism, a beau ideal that says less about the past than about the present and future. In a country still wary of its legacy of slavery, the Underground Railroad presents a redemptive history of America's original sin. At a time when national conversations about race tend to devolve into national silences, the Underground Railroad offers a past we might all like to visit.

Mention the Underground Railroad to residents of any town above the Mason-Dixon line, and they will inevitably inform you that some local abode once housed fugitive slaves. The evidence will be intriguing, if not foolproof: a hollow wall, a trap door, a Quaker ancestor. The story will be told with great conviction and pride. And it will, mostly likely, be wrong.

As early as the 1830s, both abolitionists and slaveowners discovered advantages in exaggeration. Bidding for sympathy from the North's moderate majority, the planter elite described the Railroad as a vast radical conspiracy against the rights of property, claiming that thousands of slaves per year had gone missing with Yankee aid. Abolitionists, in turn, made their own pitch for Northern sympathies with dramatic tales of freedom-loving fugitives, affirming humanity's natural penchant for freedom as well as the abolitionists' own righteousness.

As the Civil War approached, the specter of the Underground Railroad loomed still larger. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the South, in the words of historian James McPherson, "magnified [the Underground Railroad] into an enormous Yankee network of lawbreakers who stole thousands of slaves each year." The North, meanwhile, embraced fugitives who surfaced increasingly in fiction and in flesh and blood. With the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, the noble runaway Eliza, leaping across ice floes to freedom, came to symbolize slavery's cruelty.

There were just enough stories of white benevolence toward benighted escapees to imply the existence of a formidable resistance network. The abolition of slavery only enhanced the Underground Railroad's legendary status. Just as some Southerners denied their support for secession, many Northerners after the Civil War suddenly claimed deep antislavery roots. Passing this lore on to their children and grandchildren, born- again and actual abolitionists maintained the myth of a vast clandestine network run by whites for the benefit of poor and relatively helpless blacks.

And there the legend remained, more or less, for almost 100 years. A different story-a tale of self-liberation and active resistance- survived in the oral traditions of some black communities. But the mainstream perception of the Underground Railroad emphasized crusading whites leading fugitives through danger to freedom.

As with so many cherished prejudices, this interpretation of the Underground Railroad did not begin to change until the sixties. Beginning with the publication of Larry Gara's The Liberty Line in 1961, a new version of the Underground Railroad tale began to emphasize black agency over white benevolence, and to debunk the more fantastic rumors of national coordination. "There is little valid evidence," Gara declared, "for the existence of a widespread underground conspiracy." This new view accorded slaves primary responsibility for seeking and winning their freedom, disparaging white abolitionists as self- aggrandizing propagandists. Gara pointed out that abolitionists were more likely to exaggerate than to hide their involvement with fugitives, and that any aid was "often casual and temporary." Free blacks, in turn, were far more likely than whites to offer help. Gara did not deny the existence of the Underground Railroad, but he did (and does) claim that "the underground railroad was more important as a propaganda device than as an aid to the fleeing slave."

Gara's view has since become near-orthodoxy among historians. In contrast to nineteenth-century perceptions that tens of thousands of slaves rode the Underground Railroad in the decades before the Civil War, today's historians suggest that probably only a few hundred (out of a population of 4 million) managed to escape to the North or to Canada in any given year. Of those few thousand fugitives, only a tiny fraction received help from anyone other than free blacks and fellow slaves. "A white-sponsored 'Underground Railroad,'" concludes James Brewer Stewart, perhaps the top authority on antislavery, "existed only in the realm of post-Civil War mythmaking."

In contrast to this dismissal by the professionals, the new generation of advocates insists that the Underground Railroad is out there, its remains just waiting to be found. It is this conviction that has brought Anthony Cohen to Baltimore's Orchard Street Baptist Church. He is standing in the church basement, gazing skeptically at an 18-inch- by-five-foot rectangular hole in the brick wall. "I have one question for you," he says to his escort from the Urban League, which owns the building. "Have you ever seen or heard rats in here?"

It is an important question, since Cohen plans to hoist himself into the hole equipped only with a flashlight and walkie-talkie. According to neighborhood lore, the historically black Orchard Street church once served as a hideout for fugitive slaves, concealing escapees in elaborate tunnels that ran from the church basement out under the streets of Baltimore. Nobody in recent years has actually seen these tunnels, but a few older locals recall playing in them as children, bringing home bones and other detritus supposedly left by fugitive slaves. Though the original church, built in the 1830s, has long since been demolished, its foundation-and, presumably, its tunnels-have survived.

Luckily, there have been no rat sightings in recent years. Luckily, too, Cohen is small and spry. He grasps the bottom of the rectangle's eye-level wood frame, swings himself horizontal and, using his bottom leg for leverage, rolls face-down into the narrow hole. He finds himself in a cramped passageway with a dirt floor, extending into blackness on both sides. It is far too small for him to stand, or even sit, so he begins to squirm forward on his belly. First his head, then his torso, disappears, and for a few moments only the faint sound of scraping testifies to his progress. Then, muffled laughter. Cohen's midsection, and soon his head, reappears. "What did you find?" he is asked. "Sand," says Cohen, still chuckling.

Cohen is poised to become the public face of the new movement, thanks to a book (The Underground Railroad: A Personal Journey Through History, Hyperion), a genius for publicity and an unusual dose of self- confidence. His approach blends theatrics-including a custom-crafted slavery-and-escape re-enactment for Oprah Winfrey-with traditional document-centered historical research. "My forte is finding things that other people can't find," he explains during an interview at his Silver Spring, Maryland, home. "So I picked the Underground Railroad."

Like most of the impassioned new devotees, he insists that dedication and meticulous research will, in the end, prove the Underground Railroad a formidable American institution. Events at the Orchard Street church, alas, do not support this contention. To Cohen's frustration, the much-vaunted tunnel system turns out to be nothing more than an old heating duct. He estimates that one in twenty Underground Railroad sites proves to be the real deal. Lousy odds, like rats, are an occupational hazard.

Such difficulties have left today's Underground Railroad connoisseurs with a bit of a quandary. The term "Underground Railroad" traditionally referred to a white-run "network of Yankee lawbreakers"; if that network never existed, it would seem, then neither did the Underground Railroad. But rather than sacrifice the entire concept, the new generation of experts has simply redefined it, appropriating the famous moniker for a broader cause: "The Underground Railroad," reads the Official National Park Handbook on the subject, "is the name given to the many ways that blacks took to escape slavery in the southern United States before the Civil War." In this new lexicon, the term "Underground Railroad" includes all attempted flights from slavery to freedom, and everyone who helped, however marginally, along the way.

The new historical drama places the fugitives themselves at center stage, no longer passive victims but dynamos of self-liberation. "Some unknown number of slaves took a further step by seizing control of their lives and their futures, by rejecting the power of slavery completely and fleeing toward freedom," instructs the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's executive summary. "For those freedom seekers, the most important decision-to strike out and risk all-was almost always a lonely decision inspired by a mixture of desperation, self-confidence and faith." Only after this initial act of bravery did the many-hued "people of good will" begin to lend their helping hands.

For most aficionados of the new-and-improved Underground Railroad, the search for the past is less a fact-finding mission than an act of faith. Those who share the faith refer to themselves as "the movement," bound by an ineffable combination of spiritual yearning, political purpose and historical curiosity. "All the people I know who are associated with this in the real sense," explains Motherland Connextion's Kevin Cottrell, "it's almost like we're kindred spirits. It doesn't matter if you're in Texas or if you're in New York, or if you're in Iowa, for that matter. That is its spiritual appeal. And it's really almost indescribable."

True movement members exhibit an almost millennial zeal, a belief that the consecration of the past will bring about the reformation of the present. "If we had learned our lessons from the Underground Railroad, there would have never been a Holocaust," explains Carol Murphy, who hosts Cottrell's re-enactments on her farm. "And perhaps we would have stopped doing all the other things we do today."

This is Cottrell's dream as he stands sweltering in a black frock coat and hat under the merciless July sun. It is late morning on the second day of the Steel Magnolias' and Promise Keepers' visit, and the children have already breezed through Goat Island and Niagara Falls. They have stopped here, at the "predominantly white" First Presbyterian Church of Lewiston, New York, for another history lesson and some conjuring.

To break up the daylong bus tour-featuring a bridge that Harriet Tubman once crossed and a church she once attended-Cottrell has prepared a "libation" ceremony for his young followers. He describes the ceremony as a ritual of ancestor worship, imported from Africa and updated for an American genealogy. More than any other aspect of the tour, Cottrell says, the libation emphasizes the "spirituality" of the Underground Railroad.

"Most Loving, Most Holy God," he begins, his voice thick in the muggy air, "Sacred Womb of all humankind, your Spirit inspired our ancestors- black and white and red in kind."

Reverting to a conversational tone, he invites his sacred circle of preteens to give response to his call. "You saved those who fled slavery," he continues, the children echoing each brief phrase. "You saved those who helped them flee. Won't you help us now, oh God, to cross whatever rivers we must to get free."

Then it is Cottrell again. "Make us conductors for each other, underground stations of your grace. Make us recognize in each other, God, your own sweet saving grace."

Then, everyone. "Make us fearless forging fugitives, despite the dangers on our track. Make us New World Abolitionists, who refuse to turn back."

The chaperones are beginning to sway and nod to Cottrell's words. "Make our souls into seven-cellared houses, where your Spirit can come and be free. Inscribe our minds with the map of true freedom-make justice for all our plea."

"Bring forth!" shouts Cottrell, and the group repeats full force. "New Harriet Tubmans, new Josiah Tryons and new John Browns; new Frederick Douglasses, new August Franks, William Stills and William Wells Browns."

"Raise up more Steel Magnolias"-this an impromptu addition-"more Levi Coffins, more Susan B. Anthonys too; more David Walkers; more Sojourner Truths; send forth your spirit anew, your mighty, mighty spirit anew."

There is a good rhythm now, the right energy, and at Cottrell's prompting, the group breaks out into a soft "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Some of the kids seize the moment to extract their hands from their neighbors'. They continue to sing, though, and they even know the words, chorus and verse. As the last "carry me home..." dissolves into quiet sanctity, the circle breaks and everyone piles back on the bus. It's lunchtime now, and they're going to McDonald's.

In its mission to transform the here-and-now, the Underground Railroad movement more resembles the civil rights movement than a National Trust. But as an approach to social change, historical preservation is mildly perverse, or at least seriously postmodern. The new movement commemorates rather than instigates social change; it is a movement to recognize a past movement. Like most heritage phenomena (Civil War re- enactments, for example), the attempt to connect with the Underground Railroad is also an attempt to capture the imagined clarity of the past in an ever-more-evanescent here and now. The Underground Railroad allows us to imagine that, faced with the stark evil of slavery, we would have done the right thing. The desire to know what it was really like is accompanied, more often than not, by the desire, first, to purge the guilt of present privilege (why am I not a slave?) and, second, to find reassurance of one's own virtue.

In the effort actually to experience the Underground Railroad, to "get a sense of what it was like," Anthony Cohen has gone to greater lengths than most. In 1996 he spent six and a half weeks walking from Maryland to Canada, tracing the paths of fugitive slaves and exploring local Underground legends. He also packed himself into a small wooden crate and convinced friends to ship him by train from Philadelphia to New York, re-enacting the 1848 flight of fugitive Henry "Box" Brown. He repeated both ventures in 1998, titling them "Walk to Canada: The Revival." He organized the slavery-and-escape re-enactment for Oprah, who was preparing for her film role as a fugitive slave in Beloved. The re-enactment gained him a guest spot on her TV show and, according to Cottrell, a reputation as the "Michael Jackson of the Underground Railroad."

Cohen was, of course, unlikely to experience anything resembling the life of a fugitive slave. What makes the past the past is the totality of its strangeness; even when re-created with accuracy, it retains an impenetrable otherworldliness. The technology of the modern world inevitably intrudes. (Cohen, for instance, had a website tracking his "Walk to Canada.") Even without such technical disparities, re- enactments separate action from consequence, removing the contingency that made the past, in its day, as unpredictable as the present. Box Brown, if he had been caught during his escape, faced any number of punishments: return to slavery, certainly; perhaps whipping or sale. Cohen faced a rebuke and a fine from the powers at Amtrak.

But if Underground Railroad re-enactments do not provide verisimilitude, they do seem to offer emotional catharsis for those who undertake them. Oprah, for one, succumbed to the strain of pretend- slavery only six hours into her scheduled two-day re-enactment. "I became so hysterical that I connected to the raw place," she told the Washington Post in October 1998. "That was the transforming moment. The physicality, the beatings, going to the field, being mistreated every day was nothing compared to the understanding that you didn't own your own life." Cohen, too, says he experienced the Underground Railroad's powerful emotional purgative during his boxed flight. Crouched in fetal position, sure that the freight-car door was sliding open, he encountered not only his own incipient claustrophobia but also, he says, the slaves' strength amid fear. "I'm sitting there literally sobbing my eyes out. It was terrible, terrible," he recalls. "I was just thinking, wow, you know, when push comes to shove, you can survive anything. And how have we thanked those people?"

Yet, however devastating the make-believe encounter with slavery, the narrative of the Underground Railroad guarantees a happy ending, a final redemption, triumph for all. After her encounter with would-be slavedrivers, for instance, a distraught Oprah managed to break away from her captors and escape into the Maryland woods, officially completing her assigned role in the re-enactment. Cohen, after more than six hours in the box, reached New York and instructed his friends to carry him away from the station, to avoid detection by the Amtrak police. "When we get outside onto the street, [my friend] says, 'You can come out now. You're a free man,'" Cohen recalls. "And it was just so overwhelming."

"The Underground Railroad is so popular now because it does deal with that thing that is so haunting in our history," he reflects, "but it's the good end of it. It's the happy end to the sad story."

This happy-ending approach is nowhere more evident than in plans for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. When it opens on the Cincinnati waterfront in 2003, the Freedom Center will dwarf all other Underground Railroad institutions in scope, expense and, planners hope, popularity, with 400,000 visitors expected in the first year alone. The idea behind the Freedom Center is to teach these visitors about evil without fostering blame or division. Ernest Britton, the center's associate director for communications, says, "We thought it was incredibly important that we move visitors from the feelings of hostility or anger or shame or guilt related to the experience of slavery, get them to a point of understanding the truth of what happened there, and also bring them together in a celebration of what we can do with those lessons."

The Freedom Center advertises itself as the youngest member of a new generation of "museums of conscience." In contrast to their artifact- driven predecessors, "museums of conscience" prefer stories to objects, and choose those stories with both present and past in mind. The Freedom Center's "vision," for instance, is not a world in which everyone knows their history but "a society where shame gives way to pride, oppression bows to freedom, and every individual is encouraged to learn, to grow and to contribute." The Freedom Center, in short, is an $80 million gamble on the redemptive power of the past.

According to current designs, the center will not allow its visitors much freedom to wander. Rejecting the history-museum standard of wordy plaques, browsy pace and relics under glass, the center plans a guided multimedia extravaganza to "appeal to the hearts as well as the minds" of heritage seekers. After purchasing their tickets in the "Welcome area," a soaring entrance hall with multiple school-group capacity, visitors will be ushered into the Orientation Theater, where a short film will retire the most egregious myths about Underground life. Following the movie, they will file out into a special reception area, where a "twenty-first-century conductor" in nineteenth-century costume will begin a guided tour of the center's displays.

The center's market research has revealed that Americans want to learn about "real people from the past," to meet individuals rather than social systems. The museum will be designed to satisfy this craving for personal connection. The core exhibits will consist of several "Story Theaters," each based on the true story of an antebellum protagonist. These will be selected with an eye to moral as well as historical impact.

Once they have completed their travel down the center's main "Freedom Road," visitors will be dropped off on the outdoor "Path of Remembrance," where they can contemplate the past "while wandering among some carefully selected sculpture." As they gaze upon the Ohio River, once the border between freedom and slavery, they will arrive, center planners hope, at a new understanding of their history as well as their own moral failings. Those who feel a need to "[act] on their new perspectives" may conclude their visit with a walk down the "Exploratory Road," an indoor corridor featuring classrooms, art studios, music rooms and more. There, visitors can research their family genealogy, listen to Underground Railroad songs or add a few stitches to a "freedom" heritage quilt.

The Freedom Center models itself in part on the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The two institutions, however, have adopted nearly opposite approaches to narrating the past. In its permanent exhibit, the Holocaust museum presents the Holocaust as a story of persecution, collusion, genocide and despair. Only a single display near the end acknowledges such figures as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews.

By contrast, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center embraces rescue and resistance, taking what we might call the Schindler's List approach to American slavery. "[The Holocaust museum's] mission is that this was an awful thing, and by coming to this museum we want you to see how awful it is to make sure that it never happens again," explains Britton. "We're almost the reverse of that. We want you to say slavery was an incredibly awful thing that happened in America. But at the same time there was this incredibly good thing happening-the first intentionally multiracial civil rights movement in America."

The lesson behind the Freedom Center's individual stories is that dedicated people, from all walks of life, have the power to transform society. Like the rest of the Underground Railroad movement, the Freedom Center hopes to teach the world about effective resistance, about the power of a moral message, about the ability of a small group to spark massive social change. "For all Americans in search of a shared past," the National Park Service hopes, "[the Underground Railroad] proves that brutal systems and brutal laws can be overturned from within."

But does it? The Underground Railroad did not bring an end to the institution of slavery; only the bloodiest war in American history accomplished that. Whatever its nobility of purpose, the Underground Railroad, fundamentally, consisted of isolated acts of individual resistance that inflicted little harm on the system of slavery.

The ultimate attraction of the Underground Railroad, though, rests less with its alleged dismantling of slavery than with its affirmation of the desire for freedom. For the abolitionists and fugitives of the Underground Railroad, according to the movement narrative, the love of liberty was so strong that even slavery could not destroy it. "At its center," writes the National Park Service, "[the Underground Railroad] embodied the nation's leading principle: the quest for freedom." Gushes one advocate, "It's the idea that all these people were willing to risk their lives in order to be free. This is typically American."

On the Underground Railroad, slavery ceases to be the great contradiction of American history, a fundamental challenge to claims of a liberated past. The Underground Railroad allows us to talk about American ideals of freedom when what we're really talking about is American slavery. The fact that most Americans managed to live with slavery for more than two centuries becomes, in this story, less important than the heroism of a few. As a heritage narrative, the Underground Railroad vindicates the belief that true Americans will fight nobly for their freedom, that they will not rest until freedom is won.

If only that were history, and not a vacation from the past.

Beverly Gage studies history at Columbia University.
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Author:Gage, Beverly
Publication:The Nation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 13, 2000
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