Sunday, March 22, 2009

Just finished reading - Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, edited by David W. Blight

I think I owe part of my passion for the study of history to having had Indiana history in the 4th grade. My teacher, Ms. Owings, made learning history fun. She offered so many positive connections between the past and the present that it was impossible not to like learning what had happened so long ago. I remember I did a report and project for her class on the Pearl Button Factory that had been there in Madison, Indiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I even found a number of old mussel shell blanks that had holes punched out of them to make the buttons.

I also remember that the 4th grade was the first time I heard about the Underground Railroad. We learned about Levi Coffin, a Hooiser "conductor" that helped many runaway slaves make their way to freedom. As it does with many people, these stories of daring fascinated me. But, as with so many other topics in history, myths surround the true story. Passages to Freedom attempts to debunk many of the myths that have developed around the Underground Railroad (UGRR) story and tries to document the true tales of the "conductors," "stations," and "passengers."

An esteemed group of historians contributed to this work which was published in association with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Noted scholars such as Ira Berlin, James Oliver Horton, John Michael Vlach, Catherine Clinton, Bruce Leving, and David Blight, among a number of others, contribute 15 chapters covering a diverse set of topics related to the UGRR. Some chapters are dedicated to those personalities most often associated with the UGRR, such as Harriet Tubman and William Still, while other chapters cover items that concern the UGRR's effectiveness, such as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Abolitionism, and the Civil War.

One chapter that was especially interesting was, "The Places and Communities of the Underground Railroad: The National Park Service Network to Freedom." The National Park Service established the Network to Freedom (NTF) branch in 1998 with a 3 part mission. #1, to educate the public about the historical significance of the Underground Railroad; #2, to provide technical assistance to organizations that are identifying, documenting, preserving and interpreting sites, approximate travel routes and landscapes related to the Underground Railroad, or that are developing or operating interpretive or educational programs or facilities; and, #3 to develop a network of sites, programs, and facilities with verifiable associations to the Underground Railroad, referred to as the “Network to Freedom” or the “Network”. This is organization is definitely a positive because so many structures have claimed association with the UGRR without any valid documentation.

There are large numbers of high quality photographs and illustrations that are scattered throughout the work. Almost every page has some image to assist the reader to better understand the UGRR, the personalities, and the structures that are associated with it.

Hopefully your local library has, or can get, a copy of this book because I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to separate the myths from the realities of the UGRR.


  1. Tim, Your mom called and shared your site with me. I am so glad that you continued in the history and your passion for learning. I have heard from past students that they became history lovers or architechs because of our Madison and Indiana History studies. I do remember your 4th grade report and kept the poster you made for many years as a teaching tool. I have been retired now for about 5 years. The last few years of my teaching I taught first grade, but always missed the Madison History Unit! You know, your dad taught me right along with many students for many years about Pioneer Hunting during our Pioneer Days. He was always the kids' favorite presentation! Take care and continue the good work. God Bless You! Joyce Owings

  2. Ms. Owings,
    So good to hear from you. Your teaching was truly an inspiration.

    Its always so nice to hear such great things said about dad. I miss him dearly. I know he enjoyed sharing his knowledge of history as much as the kids liked hearing about it. I guess that's where the history genes came from.

    Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.