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Memory, Myth, and the Underground Railroad

Oral history is history gathered from evidence gathered from, or passed down by the spoken word. Where no writing exists, oral traditions bear the brunt of efforts to historically reconstruct the past. Where there is writing, oral history can often correct perspectives just as much as other perspectives can correct it.

In cultures where there were no written accounts, such as many African or Native American societies, oral traditions provide the only connection to understanding the past, and represent testimony transmitted verbally from one generation to another. Often these narratives pass on folklore or epic stories, which might relate society-wide values or lessons one generation may wish to pass to the next. Another type of oral tradition are personal reminiscences that are usually passed down within a family or kinship network and relate the personal experience of past family members. In many cases, direct family reminiscence make up the bulk of oral traditions.

Oral vs. Written History

In the past, historians and researchers have been reluctant to incorporate oral tradition into their work. Scholars from modern, mass literate societies are often skeptical about the reliability of oral narratives, and minimize the contributions reminiscences can make. They feel that written history is the only reliable base. Further, professional historians are trained early on to trust a stable form of evidence; the document is an artifact, it is there and it repeats itself precisely. Writing leaves a fixed trace, and chronology is easy to follow. On these grounds, oral traditions often do poorly, and some scholars dismiss the evidence provided by the oral traditions as tangential.  

The reluctance to embrace oral traditions certainly has links to the reasons listed above, but these reasons do not relate the entire story. The western emphasis on textual evidence indicates an ethnocentric aversion to non-western methodology. Cultural blinders exist in many forms of historical research, like the written word, which limits the amount of knowledge a researcher can retrieve from a document. Certainly the same sort of limitations apply to different forms of textual research.  

Oral traditions also represent "history from the bottom up," that is, the search for individuals and related events outside of spheres of wealth, power and politics that have traditionally made up documented "historical events." Which is why much of the history of the Underground Railroad remains a mystery. Bonded African Americans were kept illiterate from a western perspective, yet still managed to retain elements of African traditions which depended on oral tradition. Slaveowners believed they could disempower African Americans by withholding access to literacy.  

Such methods, however, proved futile in weakening a people who relied on the spoken word. Certainly textual evidence, such as letters, diaries, court proceedings, jail records, and newspaper articles exist to substantiate the Underground Railroad, especially those elements of the Underground Railroad organized by white abolitionist who lived in society that recorded its thoughts, actions, victories and failures on paper.  

Yet to understand the participants on the Underground Railroad who were unable to textually document themselves, traditional methods of research are in many cases useless. Nevertheless, the Underground Railroad also demonstrates elements of an African oral heritage through slave narratives, family stories, symbols on quilts, and songs. Even letters and diaries, considered written documents, demonstrate a personal view that may differ from "official" narratives in the same way a verbal account might.  

Of course, written documents can also verify aspects of oral accounts. Many of the stories, people and sites of Underground Railroad activity exist only through the oral tradition, through stories passed down through generations without written corroboration. This lore survives and must be accepted by anyone seeking a more complete picture of Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass was well aware of the need to remember. In 1884 he declared, "Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future."  

When states and municipalities began constructing legally sanctioned racist barriers through Jim Crow laws, Douglass discerned this barrier to collective memory, stating in 1888, "Well the nation may forget, it may shut its eyes to the past, and frown upon any who may do otherwise, but the colored people of this country are bound to keep the past in lively memory till justice shall be done to them."

By the 1880s, Douglass and other civil rights advocates knew that a genuinely integrated memory of slavery and the Civil War was unacceptable to much of white America. 

To combat this, the African American memory of slavery had to remain vivid. Memoirs and written accounts became more prevalent. Participants in Underground Railroad activities passed on their memories to younger generations. Traditional activities, such as the "Juneteenth" celebration and the commemoration of Emancipation Day, demonstrated the memory of gaining freedom. 

In 1891, Edward A. Johnson wrote A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890, the first textbook in African American History. African American historical societies also began to organize during this period. All were dedicated toward the preservation of memory outside the sphere of the dominant white culture and racist interpretations of the past.