I first read about the "freedom quilt" controversy a couple of weeks ago in the Times. It turns out that some historians and historical preservationists have claimed that quilts with secret codes sewn into them were used by abolitionists working in the Underground Railroad to help slaves on the run reach their checkpoints along the path to freedom. The authenticity of the quilts has been questioned for some time, apparently, but that hasn't stopped the sponsors of the Frederick Douglass Memorial, whose exhibit in Central Park is to include plaques metioning the historical significance of the quilting artifacts.
In Bordewich's commentary, he notes that historical embellishment is common in the retelling of the African-American freedom struggle, a practice that in the end serves the interests of no one. According to Bordevich, the Underground railroad provided escaped slaves shelter, transportation, and directions, but its significance has even greater dimensions:
The larger importance of the Underground Railroad lies not in fanciful legends, but in the diverse history of the men and women, black and white, who made it work and in the far-reaching political and moral consequences of what they did. The Underground Railroad was the nation’s first great movement of mass civil disobedience after the American Revolution, engaging thousands of citizens in the active subversion of federal law, as well as the first mass movement that asserted the principle of personal responsibility for others’ human rights. It was also the nation’s first interracial political movement, which from its beginning in the 1790s joined free blacks, abolitionist whites and sometimes slaves in a collaboration that shattered racial taboos.Read both articles. The history of the Underground Railroad is fascinating. But what's even more interesting here is the abuse of history by chroniclers of the black freedom movement. If race relations are as bad as civil rights activists say they are, historical scams such as this don't help the cause of building bridges across the racial divide.
During the long dark night of Jim Crow politics, these deeper truths of the Underground Railroad were suppressed: in a nation committed to segregation and blind to racism, the story of a politically radical, biracial movement led in part by African-Americans was far too subversive to accept.
Eye-catching quilts and mysterious tunnels satisfy the human penchant for easily digestible history. Myths deliver us the heroes we crave, and submerge the horrific reality of slavery in a gilded haze of uplift. But in claiming to honor the history of African-Americans, they serve only to erase it in a new way.
Americans still have a difficult time talking about race and slavery, and the Underground Railroad deserves to be part of the national discussion. It forced Americans to think about slavery in new ways, by delivering tens of thousands of former slaves into Northern communities.
There, for the first time, whites began to learn firsthand about the realities of slavery — the physical and emotional cruelties, the ruptured families, the abuse of enslaved women — and to empathize with black Americans as people like themselves, with the same human needs and desires, the same vulnerabilities, the same devotion to family and faith.
In an age when self-interest has been elevated in our culture to a public and political virtue, the Underground Railroad still has something to teach: that every individual, no matter how humble, can make a difference in the world, and that the importance of one’s life lies not in money or celebrity, but in doing the right thing, even in silence or secrecy, and without reward. This truth doesn’t need to be encoded in fiction in order to be heard.