Historian sifts facts on Underground Railroad

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The Orpheum Theatre

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

CANTON (AP) - One way to make history interesting is to provide visual clues to reinforce what is said or read.

Junius Rodriguez, associate professor of history at Eureka College, did just that during his recent lecture in Canton on "Liberty Lines: The Underground Railroad in Central Illinois."

Reaching into a small bag, he produced a chain to be worn about the neck of a slave. It was used to secure slaves, and often linked several of them together. This was done, Rodriguez said, to prevent them from escaping, as it was harder for a several slaves to try to slip away together than for one or two to disappear.

But Rodriguez cautioned the audience not to believe completely everything they saw.

A case in point was a painting by Charles T. Webber showing a family of blacks arriving at the home of white abolitionists in the winter.

First of all, Rodriguez noted it was unusual for entire families of slaves to run away together, as children would slow down the journey. Most of the runaways were young men.

Rodriguez also said it was unwise for slaves to run away during the winter, since their tracks would be more visible in the snow. Most would run away in the spring, summer, and late fall.

Thirdly, Rodriguez noted the picture showed the white abolitionists as being the most heroic figures, with the enslaved family taking an almost passive role. In fact, most of the runaway slaves played a major role in their self-emancipation. White abolitionists did help the runaways, but this was usually a spur of the moment occurrence.

Rodriguez said aiding slaves to run away was a federal crime. Most white abolitionists did not record their activities in aiding the Underground Railroad, since few people keep lists of illegal activities.

Rodriguez stressed the importance of documentary evidence, but warned the audience to be judicious in their acceptance of what is presented as historical fact.

A case in point was the work of Wilbur Siebert, a college professor who, along with his students, spent five years collecting evidence about the Underground Railroad using a seven question survey.

Siebert said he undertook the study to generate more interest in history among his students, using a topic that was "mysterious and romantic, a subject that was rich in adventure."

Siebert's study contained what Rodriguez called both the best and the worst of what we know about the Underground Railroad. While there was much important data, many stories were simply not true. At least one man reported as an abolitionist from Peoria County was actually a slave owner, but his family wanted to revise history to put him on the "correct" side.

Rodriguez also noted several traditions about the Underground Railroad were of dubious validity.

One example was the idea of quilts presenting a secret code for runaway slaves. "It's a great story, but there's not much evidence," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said two homes in Fulton County were named as part of the nearly 400 structures connected with the Underground Railroad still standing, one in Farmington and the other in Cuba.

He also offered stories of Fulton County residents who took part in the Underground Railroad. One Canton man, Deacon Nathan Jones, staged a funeral procession from Canton to Farmington to help runaways elude slave catchers.

And Pomeroy Wilson of Farmington had family members covered in blankets flee from their home to distract the slave catchers, giving the runaways a chance to slip away.


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