Going Underground

Following the slaves' route to freedom

Harriet Tubman is among the most celebrated heroines of African American history. In elementary school, I learned the chilling tale of how this courageous woman, an escaped slave, made more than a dozen life-threatening excursions back into Maryland slave territory during the 1840s to help guide others to freedom. Skillfully avoiding detection, Tubman made her trek by way of the Underground Railroad--not literally a train but rather a clandestine network of escape routes pieced together by abolitionists. The railroad originated in the Deep South and stretched all the way up to Canada. Eventually, the network led into Mexico and the Caribbean, as well.

As an African American, I'm all too familiar with stories of the slave era. Sitting in our family's Baptist church, I sang spirituals that were inspired by escaping slaves. But never having experienced slavery firsthand, Tubman's story felt as distant to me as many other lessons I picked up in history books. Yet a guided tour of Underground Railroad sites in Alton, Ill., quickly transformed that history into stark reality. For five hours, I drove around this small city (pop. 34,000), touring old churches, homes, and monuments that collectively allowed me to rediscover this chapter in American history.

Tours that follow the Underground Railroad are but one way blacks, or anyone interested in U.S. history, can uncover treasures of a long-unreported heritage. Travelers can sign on for programs that retrace everything from the birth of jazz to the civil rights movement. For example, tourists interested in the forgotten story of African American contributions in the West can visit the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center in Denver (303 292-2566). South Carolina visitors can explore a strand of about 35 islands with populations of African Americans that have held on to African traditions. Says Georgette Walker of the Greater Alton/Twin Rivers Convention & Visitors Bureau (800 258-6645): "Black heritage tours allow our stories to come to life."

SECRET LANGUAGE. Indeed, a drive through the riverfront city of Alton can do just that. The Greater Alton/Twin Rivers Convention & Visitors Bureau can arrange group tours that take in 10 sites. Tours start at $30 and include transportation and lunch. Before my own tour began, a guide decoded the secret language of the railroad: Runaway slaves were known as "freight," routes were called "lines," and abolitionists were tagged "conductors." Alton's railroad network reached its peak around the 1830s and continued delivering slaves to freedom throughout the Civil War. Alton was vital in helping slaves make connections with people in free states, since St. Louis, just 30 miles downstream along the Mississippi River, was one of the largest slave-trading areas north of New Orleans. Slaves heading to the auction block in St. Louis made their escape to Illinois.

Escape routes varied. Some fugitives fled by foot. In other cases, conductors hid escapees in false-bottomed covered wagons or in steamboats along the Mississippi. Safe houses, where during the day slaves would rest, get a bite, and obtain money, were designated by pies cooling on window sills and by "message" quilts hanging on the line. It is believed that some quilts gave directions to the next closest safe house.

One of the first stops on my tour was a bit frustrating. We came to the steps of the Enos Apartments in downtown Alton. During the 1830s, the building was known as a haven for fugitives, complete with a basement tunnel that led slaves to the riverfront. But as with many other unpreserved sites, we were unable to walk through the building, since its new owners have kept the premises closed to the public.

"FREEMANS' PAPERS." Leading the way through Alton, my guide explained that while Illinois was a free state, some landowners there continued to own slaves well into the 1830s. What's more, many residents shared pro-slavery views with their Southern neighbors. Many slaveholders did all they could to retrieve runaways, including paying hefty rewards to anyone who helped secure their return. Fugitives in all free states often used "freemans' papers," issued from county clerks' offices, that designated them as local residents, but blacks were sometimes kidnapped anyway. Examples of freemans' papers are on display at the Alton Museum of History & Art.

We also visited the grave of Elijah P. Lovejoy, a known conductor of the Underground Railroad, who was murdered in downtown Alton at 34 by a pro-slavery mob on Nov. 7, 1837. Lovejoy, the first minister of the Upper Alton Presbyterian Church, was a newspaper editor who published abolitionist views and who had his printing press thrown into the Mississippi. A 93-foot-high concrete statue of the martyred abolitionist is located near his grave.

One of the most vivid pictures of fugitive slave life can be found at the Alton Museum of History & Art, where visitors can retrace the footsteps of slaves who found refuge in its cellar. Slowly descending the stairs into the dark room, I was flooded by the same sense of relief shared by those who trod this ground a century before. I imagined slaves leaving the threat of bounty hunters outside the brick walls as they curled up on the dirt floor, if only for a single night of sleep in relative safety. Adjacent to the cellar is a damp, claustrophobic coal shed, that was also used to hide up to eight fugitives. Says Catharine T. Smith, a 73-year-old Charleston (Ill.) resident who took the Alton tour: "It became so real when I realized how dark the cellar was."

Another hotbed of abolitionist activity was the area around Lorain County, Ohio. The local visitors bureau (800 334-1673) runs African American Heritage Tours that lead to the Shurtleff-Monroe residence, home of the white Civil War general who led Ohio's first African American regiment. You can also view a commemorative quilt that depicts a miniature map of escape routes through Oberlin, Ohio. In addition, visitors can check out the Zion Baptist Church in Harveysburg, Ohio, whose members helped shield fleeing slaves along the Railroad. Today, the 150-year-old church is closed. But Bill Sanders, who worshiped there for 66 years says "it's so rich in history that it should be restored."

CONNECTION. Many slaves didn't feel secure until they reached the Canadian border. For a $3 admission charge, the journey of escaping slaves is recreated at the John Freeman Walls Historic Site & Underground Railroad Museum in Maidstone Township. Tourists walk through a small section while simulated dogs bark at their heels. Painted stones symbolize the Detroit River--as travelers cross over the stones, they have reached free territory in Canada. Elva P. Vernie, a 69-year-old Chicago resident who took the tour, says that until now, "I could only imagine running to reach freedom like that."

I recognize that dredging up reminders of a painful past is hardly the way most people would want to spend their spring vacation. Strangely, though, I found reconnecting to the Underground Railroad and its spirit of endurance to be an uplifting and inspiring experience. In that sense, it was a trip well worth taking.

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