For activists on the Underground Railroad, sharing their story could mean prison or enslavement. After the Civil War, they were free to share their story, but the years of secrecy and intentionally lying to protect their work has led to many misunderstandings of this history. On September 8, 2012 at The Philadelphia Heritage Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s (ASALH) monthly meeting, Northeast Region Underground Railroad Program Manager Sheri Jackson separated fact from fiction. Her lecture highlighted the struggle for freedom as well as providing attendees with the tools necessary to research the Underground Railroad themselves. “It is important to debunk the myths that still surround the Underground Railroad and to prevent the public from misunderstanding history,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s lecture was not only part of a regular monthly lecture series that attracts history-hungry members of ASALH, but it is part of a grand tradition that dates back to the days when the Underground Railroad was active. Abolitionists, including Underground Railroad participants, would use lectures as a primary means of spreading their activities and activism across the nation. Like those lectures, composed of public activists, Jackson’s audience was intent on spreading her message beyond the lecture hall and out to the public. “There were representatives from the American Association of Retired Persons and the director of a school that works with incarcerated young people, both of whom were eager to gain more information to share with their constituents.” Jackson explained.
Jackson’s lecture also included a fair amount of local flavor. Philadelphia played a major role in the Underground Railroad, due to its proximity to three of the northernmost slave states: New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Jackson explained that, “I tried to make sure people got the local connection and how Philadelphia served as this node both as a destination and a transit point. It was also important to tell the story of people who came through Philadelphia, like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and to trace people through the original documents.” Helping her to make this point were some of the attendees, who Jackson said shared their own links to the Underground Railroad, including a staffer from the Johnson House, a nearby Underground Railroad site. Ultimately, Jackson strives to help people connect to the powerful story of freedom seekers anyway she can and takes pride in the many ways this story still influences our modern world. “I want to make sure people see the creative connections that exist in this story, like a man who learned Harriet Tubman’s story and wrote a jazz suite about her life and work.”