July 2011, Week 1


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Mon, 4 Jul 2011 20:31:19 -0400
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Lessons from the Underground Railroad 

Harry Targ

Submitted to portside by the author. 

When the sun comes back,
and the first Quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.


Follow the drinking gourd,
Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

The riverbank will make a very good road,
The dead trees show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot traveling on,
Following the drinking gourd.

The river ends between two hills,
Follow the drinking gourd,
There's another river on the other side,
Follow the drinking gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river,
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

(Old song directing slaves on their escape, in modern
times popularized by Pete Seeger and the Weavers)

"Dad, didn't you ever go to elementary school?" (my
daughter responding to my enthusiastic report on a
two-day trip along the Underground Railroad).

I just returned from an inspiring two-day trip to
southern Indiana and Ohio, visiting three sites along
the Underground Railroad. I was familiar with the
history of African Americans' active resistance to
slavery, such as armed revolts, and forms of passive
resistance, including purposive manipulations of
master/slave relationships. However, my knowledge of
the underground flights to freedom was limited.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as many school kids
know, slaves fled the plantation dictatorships to
travel north to so-called "free states." They continued
their journey to Canada where slavery was outlawed. In
1850, the controversial Fugitive Slave Law passed
Congress which strengthened the hand of slaveholders in
their efforts to stop the Underground Railroad. It
declared that although slavery was prohibited outside
the South, slaveholders and bounty hunters could travel
north to retrieve their human "property." Escaping
slaves, therefore, could not regard themselves as
secure until they reached Canada.

While the flight of slaves was largely unplanned,
African American slave society was replete with secret
directions for escape transmitted through songs such as
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" and "Go Down Moses." Even
the quoting of certain scripture in Black churches was
designed to give information on routes to the North and
possible safe houses to seek. The courage, creativity,
and will to freedom of the slaves were extraordinary.

A trail of safe houses in the "free" state of Ohio was
created to give runaway slaves sanctuary, food, and
directions for moving further north, ultimately to
Canada. Ohio was north of the Ohio River, and Kentucky
on the river's southern banks was still a slave state.

Safe houses existed in Indiana, Michigan and elsewhere
in the Midwest and the East. Those providing sanctuary
were both white and Black abolitionists. In Ripley,
Ohio, John Rankin, a white Presbyterian Minister and
long-time abolitionist, and John Parker, a former slave
and local entrepreneur, risked their livelihoods and
their physical security to provide safe havens to
fleeing slaves.

In the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law it became a crime for
northern abolitionists to provide such sanctuary.
Northerners were obliged by law to cooperate with
slaveholders, blood thirsty bounty hunters, and local
law enforcement officials in the brutal kidnapping of
those who sought their freedom.

In my travel along the Underground Railroad, a trip
that ended at the exciting new museum in Cincinnati,
the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I
learned about the ingenuity of the runaway slaves and
the abolitionists in their construction of this long
road to freedom.

Much of the story of the Underground Railroad has only
been reconstructed in the last thirty years or so. The
paths to freedom embarked upon by the slaves, their
level of organization, and the numbers of those who
tried to escape and who succeeded remain unclear as do
the names and activities of abolitionists. Information
at the time about the Underground Railroad, of
necessity, was shrouded in secrecy for reasons of
security and for the most part narratives of the trials
and tribulations of slaves and abolitionists come from
memoirs of abolitionists written after the Civil War.

Historians debate any number of elements of the story
of the Underground Railroad. But the historical
narrative that I experienced on a simple guided tour
left a deep impression on me, particularly on what
seems to me to bear relevance to our continuing work

Contrary to paternalistic accounts of the slave system
that many of us were exposed to as children, the
slaves, against all odds, were courageous and possessed
an extraordinary ingenuity. Slave society was built on
a profound level of human solidarity such that the
successful flight to freedom of each and every slave
was built on the common struggles of entire
communities. Language, songs, community leaders such as
"the old man waiting for to carry you to freedom," and
the sacrifices of men and women to get some of their
kin "over Jordan" was the collective responsibility of
every family and community.

Abolitionists, white and Black, refused to accept the
slave system. They were willing to put their lives on
the line to oppose an oppressive and immoral system.

The abolitionists were the first revolutionaries in
U.S. history after the formation of the new nation.
Some were motivated by a conception of the slave system
as a system of super-exploitation of the labor of the
slaves by the ruling class of cotton producing slave
owners. Others were motivated by religious passion.
Quakers, Presbyterians, and people of other faiths
deemed slavery an immoral system that contradicted
God's law. For them, the laws of society, such as the
Fugitive Slave Law, were superseded by God's law. And
still others, mostly the Black abolitionists, combated
the slave system because they experienced it directly
and because it was their brothers and sisters who
suffered under its yoke.

Examining the slave system and the laws that gave it
sustenance suggests a perverse feature of the U.S.
constitutional system. Throughout U.S. history, and
particularly during the period of slavery, the
Constitution and the political system have, on the one
hand, opposed immoral laws such as the Fugitive Slave
Law, and, on the other hand, accepted them because of
the necessity of political "compromise." The Fugitive
Slave Law was the result of compromise dictated by
demands from pro-slavery advocates in contention with
anti-slavery advocates. California would be admitted
into the federal union as a free state at the same time
that southern bounty hunters would be allowed to enter
"free" states and kidnap runaway slaves. Ohio was a
free state but slave owners, or their henchmen, could
lawfully enter the state to retrieve their "property."
The United States political system has been based on
this system of "compromise." Abolitionists said "no" to
what was seen as compromise. They viewed the Fugitive
Slave Law as hypocrisy.

The lessons of the Underground Railroad parallel our
politics today. First, the story of the Underground
Railroad and the slave question is one instance among
many in which what is called "compromise," is in fact
hypocrisy. Lofty principles continue to be endorsed
which are defied in common practice. The Supreme Court
in Roe v. Wade in 1973 declared that women have the
right to control their own bodies, but health care
services are denied to them if they make certain
choices. Moreover, health care workers risk death if
they provide services that are guaranteed by the
Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. In
the 19th century slavery was outlawed in Northern
states but slave holders and bounty hunters could
kidnap former slaves to be brought back to their

Second, there is a continuity in the flight to freedom
from slavery to the present. In the 1980s, during the
Reagan wars on Central America, refugees came north to
avoid death squads or because of desperate economic
circumstance. Central American activists in the United
States risked arrest providing sanctuary for those
fleeing repression. Today, modern day bounty hunters,
federal agents, and local police pursue immigrants,
defined as illegal, who were driven from their homes by
global economic policies. They are often kidnapped,
detained, and deposited in their home countries
irrespective of the local circumstances. The
anti-immigration movement and draconian state laws such
as those in Arizona are contemporary variants of the
story of the Fugitive Slave Law.

On the other hand, resistance, in the best of the
tradition of the Underground Railroad, continues as
those most victimized rise up to seek their freedom.
They work in solidarity with political progressives in
common struggle to create a better world for economic
and social justice, and for freedom.

It is an old story: "Follow the drinking gourd." 


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