Fergus Bordewich: Well, I think the most serious myth is a fundamental one: the widespread belief that the Underground Railroad was so secret that we can’t know how it worked, we can’t know how, when or where it was founded [and] therefore anything might be true about it. That basic assumption creates a fertile field for the growth of a lot of various subsidiary myths, like the pervasiveness of tunnels (which there were virtually none, perhaps none at all) or the more contemporary myth that fugitive slaves followed maps, coded maps sewn into quilts. There is no documentary evidence for either of these things although they are very, very popular stories. But, the basic myth, as I said, is the assumption that it was so secret that you can’t know how it worked, which is completely fallacious.
There is a huge abundance of information on how the Underground Railroad functioned. There is wonderful archival material. The surface of this has only been scratched; there’s room for much more resources, and it’s a wonderful field for local research because the Underground Railroad was largely very localized [and] decentralized in a rural America of the antebellum period. Much of the best material—I’m convinced— is still out in relatively small towns or cities around the country. So, if there’s an abundance of material, why do we think there isn’t? The explanation for that is what happened after the Civil War.
I should say that the Underground Railroad was largely organized, led, and partly financed by African Americans. It was a biracial movement. In the Jim Crow America that came into existence after the Civil War, especially after the abandonment of the national commitment to the rights of freedmen during the reconstruction period in the 1870s, when African Americans—including their heroic contribution to the war effort during the Civil War (the hundreds of thousands of black troops who fought in the war)—[were] essentially written out of the story in the racist Jim Crow America that took shape in the 1870s on and lasted well into the twentieth century. Americans really didn’t want to know about a biracial movement. It went back to an antebellum, racist idea of who black people were and of their incapacity to be full citizens even though a generation of brilliant black leaders had shown before the Civil War that it was capable of organizing and running a very complex movement.
So, the memory of how the Underground Railroad worked was, I think, largely forgotten or, you could say, in some places deliberately suppressed. Instead, we inherited a sort of gilded fantasy of kindly white folks helping incompetent, terrified, helpless, black, runaways. [It was] a very pleasant story that flattered white participants but ignored black participants in the Underground. Also, by pretending that it was so secret that we couldn’t know how it worked, it made it a lot easier for Americans to forget the presence of African Americans [within the Underground Railroad].