I’m working my way through Colson Whitehead‘s best selling book, The Underground Railroad which has received raves from just about every book critic and taken home just about every award including this year’s National Book Award for fiction.
The New York Times described it as “a hallucinatory novel about the horrors of American slavery and the sinister permutations of racism, an imaginative portrayal of the routes to freedom literally on a railroad.” .…that is underground. Kinda trippy, yet an effective way to portray the issues and the experience.
It’s not hard to find real underground railroad “stations” along various routes that enslaved people traveled on the route north to freedom in the 1800s. This wasn’t some sort of subway system, but rather a dangerous trip much of it on foot, as slave hunters followed in pursuit. The stories of the people—both escaped slaves and those who sought to help them—are often as dramatic as anything an author could invent. The U.S. National Park Service offers a great list of sites across the country.
Some of my favorite of such places are in Detroit, mainly because it’s so close to Canada you can practically smell it. (Maybe it’s the Canadian Club distillery I smell over there across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.) How close, yet so far, those escaping people must have felt to their freedom, less than a mile across the river. That’s particularly tangible in Detroit’s Hart Plaza where the International Underground Railroad Memorial overlooks the river. The installation features two groupings, one in Detroit with its counterpart across the river in Windsor, both by sculptor Ed Dwight.
The Detroit component features two gateway pillars that bracket a ten foot by twelve foot sculpture with nine slaves and a railroad “conductor” pointing toward Canada in anticipation of boarding a the boat across the Detroit River to safety. The Windsor installation consists of a twenty-two foot high granite Freedom Tower that also serves as a candle representing the flame of freedom, along with a male slave giving thanks and a female slave holding a baby. A female Canadian underground railroad conductor is welcoming them both to safety.
Several other Detroit destinations offer their own story of abolitionist activity. The First Congregational Church of Detroit offers a “storytelling” re-enactment of the underground railroad passage. On the tour visitors are “shackled” with wrist bands at the entrance of the tour and begin their journey by entering through the “Door of No Return,” on Goree Island in Africa. “As this journey begins,” says their web site, “visitors transform into passengers on the underground railroad and are led to freedom by a conductor. Passengers hide from bounty hunters, cross the Ohio “Deep” river, and take retreat in a safe house in Indiana which is owned by Abolitionist Levi Coffin.” Finally, they move to “Midnight,” the code name for Detroit and take safe haven at the First Congregational Church of Detroit before moving on to Canada.
Detroit’s Second Baptist Church was also a station and received some 5,000 slaves before sending them on to Canada. By giving them food, clothing, and shelter the church was in total defiance of the Fugitive Slave Laws. The church offers tours that describe it’s long service to the community as a underground railroad stop and other activities.
For more, check out “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture” at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.