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Exploring history of Underground Railroad

HOWLAND — It felt like being back in school during a history class on Saturday at the Howland branch of the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library, as about 30 people filled a room to listen to a presentation on the Underground Railroad.

Traci Manning, curator of education at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, enlightened those in attendance by explaining the remarkable journey slaves made. She also set the record straight about which information we have been taught is true and which is not.

Manning attended Gettysburg College and earned a degree in Civil War-era studies. Manning began the presentation by saying, “So the history of the Underground Railroad, that is what we are gonna dive into today and I will tell you that there’s a good chance that a lot of things you know about the Underground Railroad are completely false and completely made for myths, and there are probably a lot of things that you think are false that are completely true. …”

She said one of the reasons for the misrepresentations regarding the Underground Railroad is because people were not exactly documenting what they did, as they were participating in civil disobedience and breaking the law.

“No one is really keeping a diary of ‘oh here’s who came through my house today and here is the route I took’ because it was illegal and if they were caught and captured, it could be horrific — the penalties that they would face, the punishment that they could face. Black, white, anyone who was a part of this,” Manning said.

One main misconception, according to Manning, was that the North had always meant slaves were free. She said, “Even here in the Connecticut Western Reserve, even before we were part of the state of Ohio, you had to register as an African-American. You had to register your status as either slave or free. So if you came here, it wasn’t like you were automatically free. You had status that you were bringing with you and there was a time when slavery was legal in all 13 colonies and in Canada. So before the United States, we have slavery everywhere. We have slavery in New York. We have slavery in Philadelphia and Boston.”

The Underground Railroad came into play once states began to emancipate their slaves. In 1786, 14 territories and northern states began doing this. Some of it was gradual and some was instant.

Because of gradual emancipation, newborn African Americans were often free, but their parents did not necessarily receive free status. Manning said, “Just 20 years before the Civil War, in the mid-1840’s, there are legal slaves still living in Pennsylvania,” furthering her point that we often think the North had always meant freedom, which is not the case.

However, now that slaves were beginning to have free status in the North, slaves in the South were faced with the decision to either break the law and try to head north or remain in slavery. Many of those who left used the Underground Railroad.

Manning said stories of slaves following the north star, using songs and checking which side of the trees have moss were all ways for slaves to figure out which way is north and are all true stories.

One myth, however, is that there were messages hidden within quilts to help slaves escape to freedom. Another myth is that different designs in hair braids of African-Americans represented different messages.

“A couple other things here that are myths, mostly that Quakers ran the Underground Railroad — quite a few did, but they are not alone,” Manning said.

Another myth she cited is that the Underground Railroad operated in the South. She continued busting myths by explaining the Underground Railroad was not a huge movement of people. According to Manning, hundreds of thousands of people were not moving North via the Underground Railroad.

“Not at all. This was a very small movement of people,” she said.

Some true stories, however, include one of Henry “Box” Brown who was a slave that shipped himself to the North in a wooden crate that traveled on railroads, wagons and steamboats. Another true story was about a slave named Ellen Craft who, due to her light skin and mixed ancestry, could pass as a white woman. She told people she was taking her male slave named William Craft to the North, but he was actually her husband and she was taking him to freedom.

Those in attendance spoke highly of the event.

“We’re members of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society… and so we enjoy this kind of thing. We know Traci’s got a good track record for a speaker. History’s always important whether it’s civil rights history or anything. You need to know what happened so you don’t do it again,” Austintown resident Linda Hahn said.

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