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Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad

Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad
    Book Description:

    This enlightening study employs the tools of archaeology to uncover a new historical perspective on the Underground Railroad. Unlike previous histories of the Underground Railroad, which have focused on frightened fugitive slaves and their benevolent abolitionist accomplices, Cheryl Janifer LaRoche focuses instead on free African American communities, the crucial help they provided to individuals fleeing slavery, and the terrain where those flights to freedom occurred. This study foregrounds several small, rural hamlets on the treacherous southern edge of the free North in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. LaRoche demonstrates how landscape features such as waterways, iron forges, and caves played a key role in the conduct and effectiveness of the Underground Railroad. Rich in oral histories, maps, memoirs, and archaeological investigations, this examination of the "geography of resistance" tells the new, powerful, and inspiring story of African Americans ensuring their own liberation in the midst of oppression.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09589-4
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xix)
  6. Map
    (pp. xx-xx)
    (pp. 1-18)

    The Underground Railroad movement secretly operated in conjunction with free Black communities and their historic Black churches. Peering at these sites through a cultural landscape lens allows a new perspective for understanding the relationship between free Black communities, the Black church, and the Underground Railroad. Blacks, enslaved and free, operated as the main actors in the central drama that was the Underground Railroad. Extended families populated Black communities and filled the Black churches at the heart of the movement. Ministers, such as William Paul Quinn, and their wives, in addition to congregations of interrelated families, acted as major forces for...


    • CHAPTER 1 Rocky Fork, Illinois: Oral Tradition as Memory
      (pp. 21-42)

      Communities as old as Rocky Fork carry a large measure of oral tradition and memory. Accounts of the settlement’s activism survived through oral tradition, memory, and newspaper stories, as well as recollections of local families and communities. With much of their history standing outside traditional Underground Railroad narratives, residents were careful to preserve vital elements of the history of the Underground Railroad and of African American self-determination on the nineteenth-century midwestern frontier.

      Remnants of the free Black settlement at Rocky Fork lie deep in the woods, rolling hills and pastures, and dramatic rock outcroppings of Godfrey, Illinois. Rocky Fork has...

    • CHAPTER 2 Miller Grove, Illinois: Linking a Free Black Community to the Underground Railroad
      (pp. 43-56)

      The stories of the free Black community at Miller Grove had no known historical connections to the Underground Railroad. The enclave was not included in the Underground Railroad legends of Illinois. Historical documents and letters supported by archaeological research gave shape to the experiences of the Miller Grove families. Ultimately, these documents led researchers to conclude that the Miller Grove area was an important antislavery location within a clandestine, poorly understood, broadly defined Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers often escaped from the South alone and passed through the area without benefit of organized assistance, relying instead on individuals of conscience.


    • CHAPTER 3 Lick Creek, Indiana: A Quaker Connection
      (pp. 57-70)

      A little graveyard is the only clue that the Lick Creek settlement once existed in the southeast corner of Paoli Township, Orange County, in southern Indiana (see map 1). The archaeological remains of the African American settlement once known as “Little Africa” are twenty miles north of the Kentucky border and forty-five miles northwest of Louisville. Chambersburg, the town recognized in local histories as an Underground Railroad station, lies farther north.¹ In 1817, freeborn African Americans came to the area and purchased land in what later became the Lick Creek settlement. Blacks also came accompanying Quakers fleeing persecution in North...

    • CHAPTER 4 Poke Patch, Ohio: A Different Route
      (pp. 71-84)

      Ohio’s sustained involvement in the Underground Railroad made the state a viable destination for anyone seeking freedom in the Northwest. At Poke Patch in western Gallia County the Underground Railroad story and African American participation were documented by Underground Railroad historian Wilbur Siebert (see map 1). The significant role of Black Baptists as well as the Methodists distinguishes this settlement from the Illinois and Indiana enclaves. Routes running toward Ohio’s iron furnaces in Lawrence and Gallia Counties, leading into and out of Poke Patch, etch lines of resistance in the landscape (see map 4). Greenup County in Kentucky and Cabell...


    • CHAPTER 5 The Geography of Resistance
      (pp. 87-102)

      Harriet Tubman thought of freedom as a distinctive destination with dimension, boundaries, and above all safety. When she crossed that “magic line” dividing “the land of bondage from the land of freedom,” she lamented that no one was there to welcome her.¹ At the moment of liberation, Tubman expressed her desolation compounded only by her isolation. On the other hand, Josiah Henson, after escaping slavery in Kentucky with his wife and children, had quite a jubilant reaction. “When I got on to the Canada side, on the morning of the 28th of October, 1830, my first impulse was to throw...

    • CHAPTER 6 Rethinking African American Migration
      (pp. 103-124)

      The caves, mountainous terrain, lookout points, and forests that provided isolated, difficult to penetrate landscapes for the residents of Rocky Fork or Miller Grove, or at Lick Creek or Poke Patch, characterize hallmarks of maroon communities formed by escaped slaves across the Black Atlantic. Escape of tens of thousands of freedom seekers fueled one of the most important migrations out of slavery. Physically fleeing bondage stands out as the captive’s first response to oppression. This chapter looks at the relationship between migration, displacement, and the Underground Railroad movement. Migration, both voluntary and forced, courses through the Black experience.

      From the...


    • CHAPTER 7 Family, Church, Community: Pillars of the Black Underground Railroad Movement
      (pp. 127-144)

      African American communities connected through family relations and intermarriage, church organizations, benevolent societies, and the fraternal structure of the Prince Hall Masons. Despite the fact that the average escapee from slavery was a young single male, maintaining family connections motivated escapes, particularly when imminent sale threatened to break up the family. Black family members understood the costs of freedom and stalwartly offered aid to escapees so they too could taste its fruits. Free Blacks, or self-liberated men and women, succeeded in purchasing freedom for themselves and their loved ones. At times, they also had the wherewithal to purchase land to...

    • CHAPTER 8 Faith and Fraternity
      (pp. 145-155)

      Black convention meetings and fraternal societies fused activists and free people of color together with childhood friends, schoolmates, and former slaves. Prominent participants representing Black churches or the Free and Accepted Masons routinely interacted with Underground Railroad operatives at Black conventions and major gatherings, providing information connecting rural families to the larger world. The nation’s prominent Black abolitionists and Underground Railroad activists maintained family ties to the rural settlements or had an acute understanding of what it took to escape from slavery. Several among them had gotten themselves out of captivity years before.

      Beginning in the 1840s, the names and...

    • CHAPTER 9 Destination Freedom
      (pp. 156-162)

      Free Blacks carried out much of the clandestine work of the Underground Railroad as they probed the meaning of freedom in pre–Civil War America. Covert works of African Americans drove the efforts inside one of the world’s most successful resistance movements. Placing the Underground Railroad inside Black communities sheds a different light on the culminating phase of more than two centuries of escapes by people of color. Whether urban or rural, Black settlements positioned at the borders between northern and southern states or at other critical junctures acted as the first line of freedom while simultaneously offering sanctuary to...

  11. APPENDIX: Ministers Chart
    (pp. 163-166)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 167-190)
    (pp. 191-218)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 219-232)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-236)