Pulitzer Prize winner talks about Underground Railroad legends

Kylie Fitzpatrick

A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, during a talk sponsored by the Littlefield Lecture Series in the Department of History on Monday, said many historical facts about the Underground Railroad have been obscured by popular legend. 

Eric Foner, Columbia University history professor, said the Underground Railroad was not a single secret entity but rather a coordination of quasi-public efforts by abolitionists. Foner, who has written books on the history of emancipation and served as president of several national historical associations, discussed his upcoming book, “Rethinking the Underground Railroad,” during the first of two presentations he is giving on southern history this week at the Blanton Auditorium. 

“Even people who know very little of American history have heard of the Underground Railroad,” Foner said. “At a time of renewed national attention to the history of slavery and the Civil War — subjects that remain in many ways contentious — the Underground Railroad represents a moment of our history when black and white Americans worked together in a just cause.”

Jacqueline Jones, history department chair and professor, said Foner is the preeminent historian of the Civil War–Reconstruction era.  

“Dr. Foner is unusual in that he is a scholar who has reached a broad and appreciative audience for his work, and, as scholars, citizens and lovers of history, all of us are the better for it,” Jones said. 

Foner said his book will focus on the Underground Railroad primarily in New York City, through which he said some of the most famous fugitives in history passed. Among them was Henry Brown, who famously shipped himself in a packing crate from the South to the Philadelphia anti-slavery office.     

“Since, by definition, the Underground Railroad spreads beyond one locality, I also discuss what I call the metropolitan corridor: a set of networks stretching from Virginia through Washington, D.C., Maryland, southern Pennsylvania and to New York City,” Foner said.

Foner said he is interested in the political significance of slaves running away. 

“The fugitive slave issue was central in bringing on the Civil War and too many accounts of the causes of the Civil War ignore slave resistance, as exemplified here, as a contributing factor to the conflict,” Foner said. 

Moriah Walter, a master’s candidate in history at UTSA, said she agreed with Foner that the Underground Railroad was important to talk about as a moment when whites and blacks worked together. 

“It hasn’t received the amount of academic attention that it should,” Walter said. “So, the fact that he’s devoting attention to it I think should let us know that it is important.”

Foner will give his second lecture, “Journeys to Freedom,” on Tuesday from 4-6 p.m. His book is due for release in January.