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In David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, he discusses Wilbur Siebert and his popular book published in 1898, The Underground Railroad.  Siebert’s fascination with the subject led him to conduct highly in-depth research, such as sending mass amounts of letters to Northerners, in order to obtain information about conductors, routes, and reactions to the infamous getaway system.[1]  After his description of Siebert, Blight discusses the impacts of his influential study of The Underground Railroad.  Northerners across the nation sought to become a member of this riveting part of history.  Suddenly, everyone’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and twice-removed cousins became a conductor or participant in The Underground Movement.[2]  

This made me start thinking of memory and identity and how the two come together when discussing The Underground Railroad.  I began to wonder how this subject is remembered considering there is so much fact and fiction surrounding the material related to it.  I decided to Google it and see how my generations and the ones before it are dealing with the numerous sources of information.  What I found was not only astonishing, but also somewhat disappointing.  It turns out that the secretive Underground Railroad that was alive in the mid-1800s is still a mystery in the present day.

My first problem comes with the National Geographic website, one which I thought would have somewhat accurate information given the fact that it is a popular site for educational purposes.  Apparently, the website should not be teaching anyone about anything, especially The Underground Railroad.  The National Geographic’s “Faces of Freedom” page not only is missing the face of Harriet Tubman altogether, but it also includes faces of perpetual slave owners.  An example of this is one Jonathan Walker, who at the bottom of the page is described as, “Imprisoned for helping seven slaves sail from Florida bound for the Bahamas, he was branded on the hand with SS for ‘Slave Stealer.’ After release he became a ‘conspicuous witness against slave power’ for the abolitionists.”[3]  For one, I have no idea what a slave holder has to do with The Underground Railroad and for two, how do the writers of National Geographic know that he became an advocate for abolition?  It is this kind of misrepresentation that wrongly educates the modern-day youth of America.  Do me a favor and stick to your strong-suit National Geographic, which is limited to wild animals and physical geography. 

My next pet peeve involves The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which again, seems like an adequate educational website.  That is until I get to the page entitled “Historic Timeline of Slavery and the Underground Railroad,” which has so many misnomers that I thought a virus had finally entered my Mac and erased all the factual information.  One example of this horrendous inaccuracy involves slaves being transferred to the New World.  The site specifically states that in 1619, “Africans brought to Jamestown are the first slaves imported into Britain’s North American colonies.  Like indentured servants, they were probably freed after a fixed period of service.”[4] This atrocity prompts history lesson, given my thesis research surrounds indentured servitude in the 17th and 18th century.  Slaves were not given contracts and indentured servitude died out because slaves were cheaper and were bound forever.  Plantation owners and various colonial individuals did not have to replace slaves because their indentures were never over, hence the terms perpetual enslavement.  To add insult to injury, this site goes on to further place The Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 (but they put “Also see 1850” because that apparently makes it okay) and fails to even include The Underground Railroad on the timeline even though it is included in the title.[5]  In basic terms, this site is a complete and utter failure as well as a disgrace in educating the American public.

This brings us to the issue of The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park and The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, two monumental locations that were approved last August to be built in Maryland and New York.[6]  One can only wonder, especially with everything that has been discussed recently regarding monuments and memory, how these parks are going to accurately depict Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad.  Given that most of the history, both past and present, clearly has trouble describing the true nature of the railroad, I remain skeptical that these parks will do justice to the era of Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 231.

[2] Blight, 232.

[3] National Geographic, “The Underground Railroad: Faces of Freedom,” http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/multimedia/interactive/the-underground-railroad-faces-of-freedom/?ar_a=1 (accessed June 28, 2012).

[4] National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, “Historic Timeline of Slavery and the Underground Railroad,” U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Education and Cultural (URR) Program, http://www.freedomcenter.org/underground-railroad/history/timeline/ (accessed June 28, 2012).

[5] National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

[6] Harriet Tubman, “Cardin, Mikulski Praise Senate Committee Passage of Bill to Create Harriet Tubman National Historical Parks,” PWTS Multi Media, http://www.harriettubman.com/index.html (accessed June 28, 2012).