Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad
by William Still

Today marked the completion of the massive five-volume Underground Railroad project at LibriVox, as the fifth and final volume was catalogued. I’ve been so deeply involved in this project that leaving it behind isn’t immediately possible. I feel as though it was somehow the defining theme of the entire year 2013 for me, my personal book of scriptures. This is a book that’s going to stick with me for life, one that I’ll carry with me wherever I go from now on.

I joined LibriVox last January. Shortly after I joined, they launched a new project — Volume 1 of William Still’s UGRR memoirs. I signed up to read a few chapters, and was gripped by the power of the stories, dozens and scores and hundreds of individual stories. After 11 months, the LibriVox crew has recorded all 43 hours — 280 sections — about 650 individual stories of escape from slavery — a flood of individual lives. I recorded 52 sections over the course of the project, and then went back and listened to all of the others as soon as they were available. I felt the weight of so many witnesses gathering around, calling out their names, shouting out to be heard. William Still told every story of every single man, woman, or child who passed through the Philadelphia Underground Railroad offices, with names and places and dates and family and destinations. Some had unusual stories to tell, full of drama and excitement. Others had only the barest of matter-of-fact accounts to give. But Still recorded every single story, giving each of them the same respect.

One of the first stories Still told was his own story, the story of his family. William Still’s father had purchased his own freedom; William’s mother seized hers by flight. She escaped with two of her children, joining her husband in New Jersey, where the rest of their children were born. William was the youngest of fourteen, though the two oldest boys had been left behind in slavery and had never met the rest of the children. When William was in his mid-20’s, he moved to Philadelphia and began to work for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, at first as a clerk, and then as the chairman of the Committee which assisted escaped slaves.  One day, a recently emancipated slave named Peter Friedman arrived in the office, hoping to trace members of his family. The story Peter told was familiar to William; it was the same story he had learned from his mother, the story of the two boys left behind and later sold South. “I believe you are my brother!” A coincidence almost too good to be true.

The story wasn’t all about happy reunions, though. Peter’s wife and children were still enslaved, waiting for Peter to arrange a rescue. Peter made a dangerous visit to the south to see how things stood and returned to discuss possible ways and means. A white abolitionist named Seth Concklin offered to fetch Peter’s family and bring them north by river. On the border of the free states, though, the group was arrested. Concklin turned up dead in the river, and Peter’s wife and children were returned to slavery. The tension, anger, and grief with which William tells his brother’s story is impossible to forget or to shake off.

Two things in particular seemed most striking, like two clear threads that ran through all these hundreds of individual stories. One was that the oppression most often found unendurable, the straw that kept breaking the heavily laden back, wasn’t the hunger or hard work or physical abuse or verbal abuse or restrictions on personal movement. Strong people bore up bravely under all these. But the one thing there was simply no accepting, the “deal-breaker”, was the threat of being sold. One narrative after another said something along the same lines. “I stood it all until I heard that I was to be sold, my family was to be sold, we were to be sold and scattered and never see each other any more. That’s when I decided to run.” This was for so many the moment when the risk and danger of making a run for freedom was no longer a factor. Human beings can endure a lot, as long as we have each other. Without each other, we die inside in ways more painful than any physical pain. The cruelest and most inhuman part of slavery was its callous breaking of vital human bonds.

The other point which jumped out at me, a repeated theme in one narrative after another, was the freedom of individual thought and choice. No matter how strongly the world insists that “the way things are” rules us all, this book makes it clear that we are not mere sheep, captives of our circumstances. People raised in a system of slavery, sheilded from any hint that another possibility might lie outside that system, managed to discover that possibility anyway, and to choose it despite the risks, to trust that in running away they were making a leap of faith. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, were the white people raised in the same system, assured that this is the way it was meant to be, that God himself supported the status quo, who somehow managed to escape from stifling conformity and dare to rock the boat.

Some of the slaves who ran away to freedom became leaders and crusaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Others simply settled down in Canada and lived quietly with their families. Some white abolitionists risked their lives like Seth Concklin. Others simply knew what their bolder neighbors were doing and approved and supported them. If the common thought of an age is made up of all the separate individual thoughts of each unique person, then every one counts. A family of emancipated former slaves living an ordinary life in the midst of their neighbors is helping to change the common thought about social possibilities by actual living example. A sympathetic white neighbor who approves of these winds of change, who expresses disgust with the Fugitive Slave Law, helps change the atmosphere in his own circle just by where he gives his approval.

Every drop helps fill the bucket. As Jesus said, “Anyone who isn’t against us is for us.” But the opposite is also true. You can support an evil system passively. If you are the neighbor who stands with your hands in your pockets and says not a word, while the slave-catchers surround your neighbor’s barn, then you are assisting them. Jesus also said, “Anyone who isn’t for us is against us.”

Tiny individual acts, decisions, and attitudes are of such immense importance because they are the quirky, mismatched, hand-made bricks that build the kingdom. Average aggregate statistical theoretical people never really did or thought anything. Only actual individuals, in the often trivial and repetitive little details of daily life, make history. Reading these hundreds of stories of real flesh-and-blood individuals, building up a memory of one encounter after another, I found out something much more true and real than any abstract generalized history of the Underground Railroad could ever have shown to me.

This has been a good project for me to be involved in, filling my mind with people who linger there and seem to be strong friends, people like Euphemia Williams and Frances Harper and Samuel Green — and William Still himself. I’ve been drawn into their stories, moved by their courage and hope, angered by the many unnecessary cruelties we humans heap on each other, uplifted by the sheer kindness we are capable of giving each other, inspired by evils overcome and chains broken in the past, strengthened for the struggles still all around us today.

Links to listen to —

UGRR Volume 1

UGRR Volume 2

UGRR Volume 3

UGRR Volume 4

UGRR Volume 5