I don’t like crowds, so on Sept. 24 — the day the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was dedicated on the Mall — I kept my distance. Instead, I rode on the railroad. The Underground Railroad, that is.
Roughly 30 miles north of the museum, in the small Maryland town of Sandy Spring, is the Underground Railroad Experience Trail. This is two miles of trails through thick woods and broad fields, past clear streams and quick-moving brooks, near bramble patches and a giant oak whose massive forked limb 25 feet above the ground reassured slaves seeking freedom that they were on the right route. Anyone more literate would have been told to search for a tree that looked like the letter “Y.” But “Y” meant nothing to most slaves, who were ignorant about letters thanks to their owners’ preference that their human property not know how to read or write. So runaways passing through this part of Maryland were told to look for a tree that resembled a giant pitchfork — a tool with which anyone who spent much time on a farm would be familiar.
The Underground Railroad Experience Trail, which opened in 2003, and the Smithsonian’s new museum are putting the rich, thrilling and staggering history of African Americans into a healthy and bracing perspective. They make African Americans’ survival and fortitude tangible and real. My 2½ hours on the railroad taught me that, even with hounds on your tail and no food in your stomach and your life at the mercy of strangers, you kept going. The star that guided you was not the North Star. No, the compass was your ferocious, unyielding demand that life be better than what you had been given, and that you would seize your rightful share or die.
There is a straight line from the 19th-century passengers on the Underground Railroad to the intellectuals who founded the NAACP nearly half a century later to the artists of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s to the daredevils of the 1960s civil rights movement to the activists of today’s Black Lives Matter movement. These individuals had, and have, an indomitability of spirit and an enviable strength of imagination. Freedom was a peculiar and vague abstraction for those who fled slavery on the Underground Railroad. Yet they were sure it was an improvement on the life they had known. So, upon hearing the call of freedom, they set out to embrace it. They were custodians of the most innate and authentic of American values.
At the dedication of the museum, President Obama said it would tell a story of “suffering and delight; one of fear but also of hope; of wandering in the wilderness and then seeing, out on the horizon, a glimmer of the Promised Land.” That is true. It is also true of the small, often barely known tributes to the “suffering and delight” scattered around our nation. Whether we’re on the Mall or on the trail I trekked or reeling from the almost daily reporting of another black life lost to gunfire from a man or woman wearing a blue uniform, the underlying lesson is that the world is broken, and probably always will be. But fixating on injustices — not lifting your eyes to the repairing of any of it — leads only to a cynicism that justice is a sham and progress is an illusion.
Trusting in our power to right wrongs is a bedrock of the American experiment. New problems will arise because that is the way of humanity. We’re a troublesome species. Our job is to again and again rise to those challenges and vanquish them.
While the cycle never ends, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition carries a certain hope: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The problem is that it’s a hell of a long arc. But then, so was the journey on the Underground Railroad. And look where that took slaves: to the glory of a new day. To the promise of a new life. To freedom.
Arthur J. Magida is a writer in residence at the University of Baltimore.