Uncovering The Underground Railroad’s Hidden Past In The Metro East
BROOKLYN — On the outskirts of this St. Clair County village, a small green sign reveals how many people live there — about 750. The small community is about five square blocks and sits a few thousand feet from the Mississippi River.
Yet for a village with less than 1,000 residents, there are 12 churches. The oldest, the Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, was established in 1825 as a Methodist church. It stands apart for its role in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves in Missouri escape to freedom.
“The slaves came and hid in the church and under the church until it was safe for them to move on further,” said George J. McShan, secretary of the church. “They were patrolling the riverfront for runaway slaves.”
Quinn Chapel underscores the special history of Brooklyn, the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the U.S. The church even helped with the establishment of the village, McShan explained.
“This church played a very important role because at that time, this was the only church in the area,” he said.
Many people who escaped bondage in Missouri made the first stop on their way to freedom at the Brooklyn church, McShan said. He said major historical figures involved in the Underground Railroad, like Priscilla Baltimore, who was instrumental in the founding of Quinn Chapel, were involved in the small community.
Today, the chapel is part of a registry maintained by the National Park Service of verified underground railroad locations. Another verified location in the Metro East is about 30 miles north, in Godfrey Township.
“We believe the escaped slaves coming from St. Charles County ended up coming here to the Rocky Fork branch of the Piasa Creek,” said Eric Robinson, an assistant history professor at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. “From St. Louis, through Alton to Chicago, the route followed, roughly, the valley of the Illinois River.”
There are many more unconfirmed sites in the Metro East; Robinson leads a tour of some of the ones that are in Alton.
No signs of history
Neither the Rocky Fork area nor Quinn Chapel have markers that would indicate their direct connection to the Underground Railroad to passersby.
There’s a simple explanation for that: Helping slaves escape, regardless of where you were, was a felony before the Civil War, Robinson said.
“Any recording of [Underground Railroad] locations, even in diaries or letters, could easily catch a person in jail for a significant amount of time,” he explained.
The nationwide network of secret routes and safe houses was instead hidden in metaphor, myth and spirituals, Robinson said. The clandestine nature of the Underground Railroad is only one reason why it is difficult to discover today.
“After the Civil War, there was this desire to reunify the country to try to push slavery into the background,” said Bryan Jack, an associate history professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “These sites of slavery were turned into other things.”
Or they were destroyed outright, Robinson said.
“We thought progress was good, new was good. Newer is even better,” he explained.
The historical longevity of an Underground Railroad site dims without actual structures or commemorative signs that someone can see, said Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, an associate research professor in historic preservation at University of Maryland, College Park.
“Once the physical location is gone, we tend to forget,” she explained. “I watch memories die all the time.”
Some of that is intentional. The people in power, who have typically been white, can decide which history a society remembers, Jack said. Black history, the painful parts in particular, get pushed aside.
“Society has a tendency to want to create this more positive historical narrative,” he explained. “Talking about racism, talking about slavery, highlighting those things doesn’t fit into the paradigm society wants to see.”
The general history of the Underground Railroad also remains obscured by the way historians have trusted different origins of information.
“There has been this hierarchy of sources, where written sources are valued more than oral sources although the oral tradition has proven to be very powerful and right,” Jack said.
In her work, the oral record has proven to be very reliable, LaRoche said. She wrote "Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance," which focuses on how free black communities helped support the Underground Railroad’s mission.
“If you used oral sources as just one other form of verification against newspaper articles, the historical record and family histories, it’s just another form of identification,” LaRoche said.
She adds favoring written records discriminates against black history, specifically oral traditions.
“If these very same things that I’ve received orally were written, people wouldn’t have so much issue with the believability of it,” she said. “Writing starts from some place, and it’s just as nebulous as anything else.”
The Underground Railroad was also a topic many researchers avoided or did not seriously consider a legitimate research topic in the 20th century, LaRoche said. But that’s starting to change.
“Now that more serious historians have started to take a look at the Underground Railroad, it has come up in legitimacy,” she said. “In many ways, this work is in its infancy.”
The 1999 book "Runaway Slaves, Rebel On The Plantation" kicked off a new interest in historical accuracy and awareness, LaRoche explained. She adds it helps that university presses are publishing books on the subject now.
And there’s new interest from the general public on the topic. Robinson sees it from people on the tours he leads.
“They’re very interested in hearing the stories of the people,” he said. “Why did they escape? Why did those who helped the escaped slaves help them escape despite all odds? Where did they go?”
His tours also attract many middle school groups. The students tell their friends and want to bring their parents on the experience.
“That really makes it very meaningful,” Robinson said, “The Underground Railroad stories that we had before the Civil War nearly died out in the 1920s because people didn’t want to hear about the Civil War and pre-Civil War period. This way, we’re keeping the stories alive for the future generation.”
Correction: Harriet Tubman did not travel through Brooklyn. A previous version of the article listed she did.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.
Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid
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