Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Underground Railroad and Public History

Run for Your Life: The Underground Railroad and Public History

James Brewer Stewart, this year's NCPH conference keynote speaker, has written powerfully about the abolitionists, an early contribution to a key topic that has changed dramatically. When his book, "Holy Warriors" appeared in 1976, historians tended to interpret anti-slavery activism as part of a wide range of ante-bellum utopian, social reform movements. These days the focus has shifted from white religious abolitionists to an emphasis on the black public sphere, decoding slave narratives, and the network of African American helpers who made the Underground Railroad a path to freedom. Documenting the historical evolution of appeals to "Let My People Go" to the direct action imperatives of "Let's flee slavery now!" is an important part of public history work on this popular topic.

Historian David Blight has edited a superb collection of articles dealing with conflicts of heritage and history, called "Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory" and James and Lois Horton have collected state-of-the-art essays in "Slavery and Public History." On the web see sources from the National Park Services site The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Abolition and Resistance has in-depth resources at

Check out podcasts, tours, museum objects and library documents from the Run for Your Life projects on the New-York Historical Society website. (or directly
--Kathleen Hulser, public historian, New-York Historical Society

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