The Underground Railroad in Franklin County

I’m beginning to feel like a high school athlete psyche-ing up for a track meet. This weekend the David Ruggles Center in Northampton is holding a two-day symposium on the eponymous David Ruggles and the Underground Railroad in Northampton.

For historians, the Underground Railroad is a difficult study. Those involved had to keep everything secret. And after the Civil War, there was little or no interest in telling their stories.

The North became apologetic about Reconstruction and wanted to patch things up with the South, and the rights of African Americans seemed a small price to pay.

At Lincoln’s 100th birthday in Springfield in 1909, not a single black person was invited. In fact a friend of Lincoln’s was lynched there.

The only reason we know of John P. Parker, one of the most successful conductors on the UR, is that a white journalist was trying to substantiate the passage in Uncle Tom’s Cabin about Eliza, with her baby, crossing the Ohio River on the ice flows, and he talked to Parker.

Even then, the story was publicized mostly because John Parker was half white, and the intent was to show that his white half was the half that emboldened him to his acts of heroism. Shades of Light in August.

That’s why not that much is known right now, but as the scholarship moves inexorably forward, I believe we will find lots more evidence that will enable us to tell these stories of heroism.

I have found so many characters who I know were involved. ‘General’ Walker, who started the Franklin County Fair — always walking, sometimes as far as Worcester.

Basil Dorsey, a friend of Sojourner Truth, who drove his team to Boston every week. Tell me he wasn’t involved in passing messages. Henry Jackson of Amherst, who drove to Greenfield every day.

Jackson had rescued the sister of a friend of his who was going to be sold into slavery. In the process he pushed a white lady out of the way going up some stairs.

Know who his lawyer was? Emily Dickinson’s father. I refuse to believe that the Dickinson family stood idly by and allowed slave hunters to kidnap freed slaves without doing everything they could possibly do to prevent it.

We know from the descendents of escaped slaves living in Canada that John Putnam, the fiddler who organized the orchestras at the hotels in Greenfield, was a station master, and Dexter Marsh, who discovered the first traces of dinosaurs in America, also ran a safe house.

As scholars add two and two, I think we’ll find out a lot more about the Underground Railroad  in Franklin County.

But frankly, I think it’s not enough to focus solely on the heroism of the slaves who made their way to freedom and those who helped them. That can turn into a simplistic feel-good take on history.

The picture is not complete unless we include their pursuers, some of them slave hunters from the South, some of them Northerners trying to make a buck, and some of them U.S. marshalls enforcing the law of the land.

Then there are those who stood idly by in the face of gross injustice.

In this case the heroes are those who defied the law, like Theodore Parker, and the marshalls and sheriffs who found the law too repugnant to enforce.

What I’m saying is, it’s all very well to speak of the heroism of Harriet Tubman, but I think it’s important to mention who it was that wanted to hang her and that was, among many others, the government of the United States of America.

I mention this because I’ve heard just a little too much about the greatness of America, and I’m getting tired of it.

Slave narratives are very hard to read. Besides the brutality, there are the children sold down the river, the eight-year-old boy taken from his mother and forced to walk from Virginia to Alabama chained to a dozen other slaves.

Such things do not happen in a great nation. If America is now great, as many people believe, it is because of people like Sojourner Truth and David Ruggles and John P. Parker.

And to tell the truth, if a nation was really great, I don’t think its people would waste time talking so much about their own greatness. I would think they’d have better things to do.