Oral traditions like these are some of the most common and important sources of information about the Underground Railroad.Yet people often do not understand oral traditions.Sometimes oral sources are accepted uncritically.Other times they are rejected entirely. If the Underground Railroad was a secret movement, they argue, why would Underground Railroad activists leave a paper trail about illegal activities?
In fact, although the Underground Railroad was often a secret movement, it was also often widely publicized. Because Underground Railroad supporters needed community support, they used personal stories to bring new recruits to the abolitionist cause. They left newspapers, personal manuscripts, census records, antislavery petitions, church records, and other written sources, as well as an extensive oral tradition, to document their work.
This booklet offers an introduction to using and verifyingoral sources and documents that relate to the Underground Railroad. It outlines a rating scheme to analyze those sources critically, and it offers examples for discussion. Anyone interested in Underground Railroad research—local historians, genealogists, high school and college students, teachers, and interested citizens—will find this booklet useful.