Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad.

Author:Williams, R. Owen
Position:Book Review

Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad As Told by Levi Coffin and William Still Edited by George and Willene Hendrick, Ivan R. Dee, Publishers February 2004, $24.95, ISBN 1-566-63545-4

When it comes to the Underground Railroad, historians may never separate fact from fiction. The very nature of the story seems to conspire against discovery. This addition to the subject, though useful for younger audiences, will bring us no closer to the facts.

Independent scholars George and Willene Hendrick have abridged the nearly twelve hundred pages of two colossal collections, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (1880) and William Still's The Underground Railroad (1872), into a single compact volume. Levi Coffin (1798-1877) was a Quaker who operated "stations" of the Underground in Indiana and Ohio. By his own testimony, Coffin was "the reputed President of the Underground Railroad." Late in life, he published his many diary entries relating to the two thousand or more fugitives who, according to the title page of Reminiscences, gained their freedom through his instrumentality."

William Still (1821-1902) was the self-taught son of ex-slaves. His mother, a runaway, headed the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia. He also served as the clerk of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery and later turned his files into the classic source for fugitive slave testimony, The Underground Railroad.

In the story of "A Slave-Hunter Outwitted," we learn that the Underground Railroad "was a Southern institution; that it had its origins in the slave states. For the sake of money, people in the South would help slaves to escape" (p. 68). Coffin paid particular attention to John Fairfield, a southern abolitionist who was "always ready to make money from his services," but, if the slaves had no money, "he helped them all the same" (p. 81). The Coffin selection ended with the tragic story of Margaret Garner who, in 1856, "killed her child rather than see it taken back to slavery" (p. 91).

From William Still's exhaustive compilation of fugitive narratives ... Still retells the amazing saga of William and Ellen Craft. Ellen was "flair enough to pass for white;' enabling her to become a young, lame, deaf, rheumatic planter with a "bold air of superiority" that cleverly camouflaged the distance she kept from others as her now "slave" William respectfully attended to the details of their voyage to freedom (pp. 191-192).

Two chapters, about a third of the...

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