NEW JERSEY'S UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MYTH-BUSTER
Giles Wright is on a Mission to Fine Tune Black History; Debunks New Slave Quilts Book
CAMDEN, N.J. -- Even as it remains one of the nation's most noble episodes of interracial cooperation, the underground railroad has become the subject of an amazing number of distortions
and misrepresentations, according to Giles R. Wright, New Jersey's top authority on the region's black history.
Photo: Hoag Levins
|Appearing as part of Underground Railroad Day at the Camden County Historical Society, Giles Wright criticized the new slave quilt book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and The Underground Railroad as inaccurate "nonsense." Larger photo.|
DOCUMENT: See Giles Wright's written critique of the controlversial book.
And the New Jersey Historical Commission is determined to set that record straight, Wright said in a Saturday appearance at the Camden County Historical Society (CCHS). The event was co-sponsored by the Camden County Cultural & Heritage Commission (CCCHC).
Director of the Afro-American History Program at the state Historical Commission in Trenton and author of the book, Afro-Americans in New Jersey, he is currently conducting the most extensive study ever done on underground railroad activities here.
The Historical Commission is soliciting information from anyone who believes they know of local sites or the identities of persons who participated in underground railroad activities. Each reported item is then investigated and evaluated in a manner that has, in effect, made Wright the state's official underground railroad myth-buster.
Funded by a special grant from the legislature, the project aims to produce a
definitive, accurate history of the runaway slaves who passed through New Jersey and the people who helped them. The ongoing work is documenting new information at the same time it exposes some underground railroad site claims as fakes.
He also noted that this sort of historical research can be unpopular.
Some myths die hard
"People at the local level who claim their spaces are underground railroad sites don't want to believe otherwise; even if we come in and provide evidence disproving that, they are quite reluctant to accept it," he said.
One of the more outrageous underground railroad claims he recently debunked involved a bar owner in central New Jersey. According to Giles, the man was attempting to inflate the value of a property he was trying to sell by suggesting it has great historical signifigance.
"I'd never seen anything like this," Giles said. "Down in the basement was a little shrine of candles, three six packs and an image of a black Jesus. The walls
had been knocked out between crawl spaces and white Christmas lights had been strung as far as you could see in the darkness. A printed handout said something like 'Through these portals thousands have passed.' And there was a water cooler bottle set up for collecting donations."
Photo: Hoag Levins
|The burgeoning popularity of Underground Railroad history has spawned a wide array of fake sites and phoney stories by people trying to cash in on the subject, said Wright. Larger photo.|
On the other hand, Giles' research is confirming and broadening our understanding of authentic New Jersey events related to the underground railroad, including armed showdowns between runaway slaves and slave catchers. One such confrontation occurred in December, 1860, in Timbuctoo, a small settlement established by freed slaves near Mount Holly in Burlington County.
"A slave catcher out of Camden came into Timbuctoo attempting to apprehend a runaway slave who had lived there for ten years," said Giles. "The members of that community, being armed, rose up to prevent the slave catcher from apprehending the fugitive slave and returning him to the South."
"This incident," he continued, "underscores why these all-black settlements are of particular importance as havens that provided runaway slaves with a great deal of safety."
Perhaps the biggest myth about the underground railroad has to do with its size, said Giles.
Most people believe that "large numbers" of fugitive slaves traveled through the secret network.
|In one of the more ingenius escape strategies, runaway slave Henry Fox Brown had himself packed in a wooden box in Richmond, Va., and shipped to freedom in Philadelphia. Larger photo.|
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "Slaves who ran away and came north constituted a very small percentage of the overall number of slaves who ran away. Most runaways stayed in the South and did not come north. That is why we can discount a lot of the claims that have been made about the underground railroad -- because we have almost more claimed sites than we have slaves."
During the approximately 31 years of the nineeteenth century that the underground railroad operated, 30,000 to 50,000 slaves are estimated to have passed through it, Giles said. This was at a time when there were a total of about 4 million slaves throughout the United States. This means that barely one percent of all slaves escaped to the North.
The government historian also pointed out that new underground railroad myths continue to spring up and often go unchallenged by newspapers and broadcast outlets that parrot publishers' news releases as historic fact.
Slave quilts book
In this regard, he was particularly critical of the 1999 Doubleday book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, by Jacqueline L. Tobin, Raymond G. Dobard and Cuesta Ray Benberry. The book suggests that slaves had a well-coordinated secret code system that used slave quilts to "publish" information about how to escape and flee to the North. In its carefully worded review, The New York Times characterized the book as a "fascinating theory."
|Giles Wright was particularly critical of the 1999 book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and The Underground Railroad. Larger photo.|
Mr. Wright passed out a written critique at the Camden County Historical Society event charging that Hidden in Plain View is "sheer conjecture and speculation" that "greatly misrepresents" black history. "This book is selling like hotcakes," he said, "because it presents a very, very appealing idea. But it is nonsense and a perfect example of what those of us who are attempting to do serious underground railroad research are up against."
All Rights Reserved © 2001, Hoag Levins
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