5 Underground Railroad myths, debunked

'Gateway to Freedom' by Eric Foner
'Gateway to Freedom' by Eric Foner
Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company

The Underground Railroad is a popular topic in American history, but many of the stories people recite are more myth than fact: Secret codes stitched into quilts, safe houses with lanterns in the windows and hundreds of thousands of slaves escaping to freedom along a secret route.

The reality is much more complicated, but no less fascinating.

In 2007, an undergraduate student at Columbia University uncovered a list of fugitive slaves in the papers of Sydney Howard Gay. Gay was an important figure in the Underground Railroad, and he kept meticulous notes on the escaped slaves he assisted: where they were from and where they were headed.

When Eric Foner saw the list, he was in the middle of writing his book on Abraham Lincoln, "The Fiery Trail," which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

"I was amazed," Foner told The New York Times. "I had never heard of this document, or seen it cited." He began to dig deeper into Gay's records.

His research gave way to a new book, "Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad," which was released this January.

Foner joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss the true history of the Underground Railroad.

5 Underground Railroad myths, debunked

1. The Underground Railroad contained actual underground tunnels or passages.

"I have never actually seen any evidence of tunnels in the east," Foner said. "People talk about them, they talk about secret codes, secret passageways. The funny thing is, in the 1850s anyway, most of the slaves escaped very much above ground. They escaped on railroads, they escaped on ships."

2. Slaves used quilted maps to navigate the route.

Unfortunately, historians are professional killjoys, Foner said. It's a good legend, but unrealistic.

"The problem is there were no set routes in the Underground Railroad in the South," Foner said. "It was not a system like a railroad map."

3. Escaped slaves stayed in northern states.

Most slaves changed their names once they hit northern states, Foner said. There is some evidence many of them ended their journey in Canada, based on the country's census.

4. Slaves traveled the Underground Railroad alone.

From The New York Times book review:

Instead of the popular image of a lone fugitive running through the woods, Mr. Foner's analysis of Gay's notes suggests a significant number escaped in groups, often traveling on trains or boats, helped along by blacks working in the maritime industry, including some in Southern ports like Norfolk, Va.

5. The Underground Railroad was primarily the work of white heroes.

From NPR:

In the South, [escapees] were helped by mostly black people, slave and free. When they got to Philadelphia or New York City, local free blacks assisted them all the way up. ...

The Underground Railroad was interracial. It's actually something to bear in mind today when racial tensions can be rather strong: This was an example of black and white people working together in a common cause to promote the cause of liberty.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.