What are a few myths about the Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad is often portrayed as the result of benevolent abolitionists who toiled out of the kindness of their hearts to lead and shelter fearful runaway slaves, helping them break free from the bonds of slavery to start life anew in the promised land. These abolitionists are depicted as white people who placed lamps in windows or quilts on fences as signals for safe places. Slaves would then hide in the homes and barns of conductors, hidden in their secret hiding rooms and passage ways. This scenario is the legend of the Underground Railroad.
The reality of the Underground Railroad was much less romantic. Escaping enslaved individuals often had no help or guidance from anyone throughout the majority of their journey. While it is a common belief that white Northerners were going into the South and bringing slaves from the farms and plantations into the North, the truth is that most enslaved individuals left on their own. When the enslaved did have assistance, the aid they received varied from being given a place to rest in barns and sheds to being provided with a small amount of food and sent on to the next location. Those seeking freedom would have had to place a good amount of trust in the people who were assisting them, for at any moment their safety could be compromised, leading to recapture.
It is also a common misconception that all people working to assist escaping individuals were white Northerners. The fact is that the majority of the conductors on the Underground Railroad in the South were Black, often still enslaved themselves.
Many people today are familiar with songs and symbols that were supposedly used by people involved with the Underground Railroad. Songs include, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Wade in the Water," "Steal Away," and most famously, "Follow the Drinking Gourd." Current scholarship is debating the songs being used on the Underground Railroad or the time / origins of them. There is little to no historical evidence to suggest that these songs were sung by slaves to help disseminate knowledge about Underground Railroad routes, safe places, or code words. Despite this, these songs continue to be cited as key components of the Underground Railroad.
One of the most famous symbols of the Underground Railroad is the quilt. Supposedly used as an indicator of a safe place, it is claimed that quilts were hung from roofs, barns, and fences to signal to enslaved individuals the location was a station on the Underground Railroad. There are two pieces of evidence that allow many historians to question the validity of Underground Railroad quilts. The first being that no former enslaved individuals accounts mentioned these quilts in the Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives from the 1930s. Second, that quilts also were not mentioned in any 19th Century slave narratives. Had these quilts been utilized by those participating in the Underground Railroad, it is likely that they would have appeared in at least a few of these narratives. There is also no hard evidence of their existence; no quilt with proven Underground Railroad usage has been found. Still, these quilts remain one of the most famous symbols of the Underground Railroad.