Bound for Freedom

Reviewed by James T. Campbell
Sunday, April 1, 2007


A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad

By Karolyn Smardz Frost

Farrar Straus Giroux. 450 pp. $30


The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the

Underground Railroad

By Mary Kay Ricks

Morrow. 432 pp. $25.95

New York recently unveiled plans for a memorial to Frederick Douglass, the one-time fugitive slave who became 19th-century America's most eloquent proponent of racial equality. The project was immediately engulfed in controversy -- not about Douglass but about the monument's granite pedestal, which features carved replicas of African American quilts. Inspired by a popular 1999 book, Hidden in Plain View, the pedestal includes explanatory panels describing how patterns stitched into such quilts were used to convey coded messages to black fugitives fleeing north along the Underground Railroad.

The problem, as several prominent historians of slavery have noted, is that no contemporaneous evidence proves that such a code ever existed. There are certainly no references to quilts in the voluminous writings of Douglass, who escaped to freedom by train and steamship, disguised in the kerchief and broad-brimmed hat of a sailor.

Welcome aboard the Underground Railroad, a world in which history and folklore, memory and myth, have become so interwoven as to be inextricable. To be sure, there were covert networks to assist fugitive slaves -- a "railroad," in the inevitable metaphor of the era -- but the system was less organized and extensive (and distinctly less white) than most Americans today imagine. The countless white Northerners who point proudly to the basement or the old barn where their forbears sheltered escaped slaves are, more often than not, engaging in wishful thinking.

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