Bringing rigor to the Underground Railroad story

The noble failure

fugitiveLike most Americans my age, at least those who liked American History from early in their childhood, certain understanding were simply presumed straightforward. Among these acceptances was the purpose of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. I didn’t like what I knew of the law, but I understood that the slave states insisted on having a rigorous law aimed at stemming the flow of fugitive slaves.

I also accepted those accounts readily available to me about the role of Underground Railroad “conductors.” With the lone account of Harriet Tubman, the conductors were, white, male and predominantly Quaker. Among these no doubt courageous figures who left for posterity their recollections of the efforts to help the pitiful runaway slave find his or her way to Canada and freedom is Levi Coffin, an abolitionist who, by his own account, helped over 3,300 slaves make their way north, 2,000 of these during his tenure in my hometown of Fountain City.

However, as I was exposed to more rigorous research, some conducted by myself, it soon became clear that the math didn’t add up in nearly every account, north and south, about the nature and certainly the efficacy of the Underground Railroad. Exaggeration, which I now see was rampant in these accounts, has driven a very unrealistic picture of this romantically described network to freedom. The fact of the matter is that the story of the Underground Railroad is one of one of the most tragic failures in American History.

The math

I’m indebted to Philadelphia attorney David Romine, owner of the LinkedIn professional group, American History. Earlier this year, in one of the many fine, even fun discussion threads, David introduced me to a book that has greatly expanded my understanding of issues and causes leading to the Civil War.

As the discussion on non-fiction books touched upon the 1850s, David shared, “The authoritative book on the 1850s is David Potter’s, The Impending Crisis. I almost immediately ordered the book from my local library. At 583 pages of text before the extensive bibliography, it’s a serious read. The book’s prose is disciplined and lesser writers than the late professor Potter have written covered much less in multiple volumes. The brief treatment of the Underground Railroad’s actual effect on slavery is a prime example.

In one paragraph on page 136, Potter cites census figures from both the United States and Canada that provide, as the author states, “some puzzling anomalies.” Census data from slave states whose congressional representation was calculated, albeit at three-fifths per soul, enumerates “…the number of slaves who an away annually…at 1,011 for 1850 and 803 for 1860.” For states whose, (much higher), claims of economic damage done by fleeing slaves was one of the causes of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, their own records fail to back up the assertions.

Canadian census figures are even more damning to figures used by both abolitionists and slave states. Citing again the same paragraph of The Impending Crisis, figures from Upper Canada, meaning Ontario where most formerly in bondage settled, count 5,469 Negroes in 1848, “…increasing to 8,000 in 1852 and to 11,223 in 1860.”

The paragraph concludes that even had there been no natural increase in population, either fugitive slave returned from Canada, not to Free States, but to the South, “…or that the migration was less than 6,000.”

The need for more rigorous interpretation

seiburt mapIn addition to the scholarship of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize award winning The Impending Crisis, (both the book’s publishing and the author’s award were posthumous), the Underground Railroad has been reinterpreted on many levels.

Though unquestionably helpful furthering the study of the Underground Railroad, the late Ohio State History Professor Wilbur Siebert’s painstaking collection of accounts and data is almost entirely that of white abolitionist’s accounts that seldom mention or downplay the role of Free Blacks who actively secreted fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. These accounts are now seen as almost certainly exaggerated in detail when held up to much academic scrutiny.

In Levi Coffin’s 1876 autobiography, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the underground railroad, the author applies without confirmation or denial a third hand accounting of the number of fugitives he personally assisted.

LEVIand CATHRecalling a visit to England made following the Civil War, Coffin quotes in his book one Edward Gem retelling an account by mutual friend Joseph Sturge as to Coffin’s work on the Underground Railroad.

…during the twenty years he remained at Newport, (present day Fountain City, Indiana), he had the privilege of sheltering under his roof an annual average of one hundred and six….In all he had the privilege of relieving 3,300.

Coffin uses the claims of others in a similar fashion when suggests he and his wife Catherine are the basis of characters Rachel and Simeon Halliday in Cincinnati contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This assertion was debunked in Stowe’s 1854 A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in response by pro-slavery sources that the novel was almost entirely fiction.keycvr

The suggestion Levi and Catherine Coffin personally “relieved” more than half the probable number of slaves who escaped from the South is almost certainly a wild exaggeration. Coffin, who died within a year of the book offering by subscription, was composed to help support his wife and I can’t blame the abolitionist for taking a common license to boost sales.

The context

While scholarship not clouded by nostalgia, wishful thinking or even careless research reveals the Underground Railroad to have been an unqualified failure as a means to free human beings from bondage, it would be unfairly cynical to write off the effort.

As Potter points out in his work, the Underground Railroad was primarily a propaganda tool used with effect by abolitionists, a tiny minority among Northerners at their height of influence, which was never much. Conversely, the term Underground Railroad, likely first coined by Southerners to also inflate their claims, was a factor in enacting the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Despite the near universal contempt felt in the North towards that onerous law, it was, with but few exceptions, enforced.

History as Prologue

The contemporary study of the Underground Railroad needs to evolve from one of romanticism to one of context. The complex causes of the Civil War – all inextricably tied to slavery – have been presented too often as independent factors, not the interrelated, fluid movements finally colliding at Fort Sumter.

For those of us who study and interpret the Underground Railroad, our understandable fondness for and defensiveness of abolitionists must be seen as an impediment to fully appreciating the true nature of this topic and of all its actors. To do this, we’ve got to begin presenting the story of the Underground Railroad for what it was – a noble failure.

A great mug of coffee

A great mug of coffee

My new, red French PressOK, technically it’s not really mental illness if it works, (or if Cthulhu* demands it be done)!

In my happy quest to make the best coffee possible, I’ve gone to what the casual coffee drinker might call extensive measures. I use a French Press, filtered water, fresh, whole beans, and in the past few months, a hand-cranked ceramic burr grinder. That last purchase proved wise as it produces a grind much more consistent grind, (key to any extraction process, than an electric blade grinder, . However, I could still detect tiny particles in the bottom of my cup, particles that release bitter flavors after a few minutes.

Pictured is the Aeropress. A detailed explanation of how the device works can be found at

Pictured is the Aeropress. A detailed explanation of how the device works can be found at

The dilemma

Many respectable baristas have stopped using the French Press as the device’s screen doesn’t sufficiently remove all the smaller bits of grind that will, not can, make your coffee detectably bitter.Those small, often dust-like particles also affect the “clarity” of coffee, something I admit I could care less about at 0500 when I’m simply trying to not hurt myself while brewing coffee. Still, it’s a factor that is driving the use of Aeropress, a very inexpensive, polymer tube that uses a silver dollar sized paper filter to eliminate all grind particles.

I’m emotionally attached to not only my French Press, but to the process that goes into making coffee. Pipe smokers no doubt understand the relaxing routine that goes into the several simple steps of making a great cup of coffee. I’m also quite fond of the style a French Press brings, and quite frankly, the Aeropress is devoid of aesthetic qualities. Still, I know – I see – evidence that my coffee could be better.

No larger than black powder grains, the small bits of now-trapped coffee won't make my brew bitter.

No larger than black powder grains, the small bits of now-trapped coffee won’t make my brew bitter.

Rifling through a kitchen draw last week, I noticed a seldom used gadget tucked among an apple corer, a nut cracker and a wire cheese slicer. In an instant I saw its coffee application! The weathered, small, fine-mesh strainer was coincidentally the same diameter as my favorite coffee mug. By pouring my freshly pressed brew through the strainer, most of the small particles are trapped and I can honestly say I notice a smoother effect since I added the step. Sadly, I must admit to seeing some sediment at the bottom of my mug. The remaining powder not caught by the mesh filter on my press or by the wire strainer is an improvement, no doubt, but knowing it can be better poses a dilemma.

At $25 or so, the Aeropress, with its insipid appearance, does provide a superior clarity with no residual coffee bean material in the brew. The very though, however, of using this device is, for me, akin to seeing Sherlock Holmes discarding his calabash in favor of a crack pipe.

A compromise awaits

As I’m hardly the type who’d notice a single pea beneath my mattress, I’m sure I’ll keep my beloved French Press as my device of choice for morning coffee. As I see coffee first and foremost as a civilizing custom both to be shared with great company or relished in private, I can see the Aeropress being a fun conversation topic that just happens to make a superior cup of coffee. However, the Aeropress will never hold a place of honor as does my French Press. It just wouldn’t be right.

Cthulhu is a fictional, (yeah, right), being created by horror master H.P. Lovecraft. I only recently discovered the Cthulhu’s image closely associated with coffee. cthulhu_coffee_mug

Teaching time

Teaching time

Whether you teach history or not, the effect of your instruction is always limited by an array of underlying skills. Time management is chief among these abilities needed to exceed existing potential. Like many realizations I’ve made while teaching, valuing time management strategies were emphasized in my days before becoming a teacher.

Valuing time management

I frequently joke about my seven years selling real estate, claiming I wrote a best seller, How I Made $100 Selling Real Estate. While I didn’t make a good living at all in this field, I did enjoy much of the occupation as a direct result of putting in some real effort to become better and more knowledgeable.

Like many, I sought training from the masters in selling, namely Tommy Hopkins, perhaps the best known sales trainer of the time. I attended at least three seminars listen and learn from not only Tom Hopkins, but from other well-recommended sales trainers. Three observations remain with me from those experiences.

  • I recouped the cost of the training as a result of new information.
  • The top-selling agents always attended these seminars.
  • Every training seminar devoted at least one-quarter of the seminar length to time management.

The implication of these observations relate directly to good teaching. For now, I’ll focus mainly on the final point, teaching time management.

It’s all relative

It was Tony Valant, my best friend since 7th grade and now a successful sales executive who first shared with me this observation.

“You know, when we were in high school, having to wait a year seemed so long because a year was a big fraction of our time on Earth.”

The point was immediately obvious. By the time Tony spoke those words, a year had gone from being .0588 of our seventeen years to thirty-three thousandths at age 30. Not only had an hour seemed an eternity in some classes, the effect was multiplied by an overall lack of concept. Our idea of time was still in its infancy in those teen years.

Teaching well demands teaching time management

As a world class procrastinator I really should have more empathy for students who begin work on a big project the night before it’s due. The fact is time management is a skill no less difficult to master than dribbling a basketball, (which I’ve never learned, or interpreting conflicting accounts of the past.

The abstraction of time management is not on any standardized test I’ve seen. Like many such concepts and skills upon which knowledge is overlooked in favor of scores, it’s not surprising so many of us unwisely conclude our limited time with students simply can’t include the teaching of time management. This wide-spread bad habit is, of course, self-defeating in the long run, but such practices are strongly reinforced in schools.

Ironically, just in my own lifetime I’ve seen school adopt first agenda books, and now, computers allowing 24 hour access to free, high-quality and simple to use time-management tools. I see these innovations as the most important of all changes in public education since my days as a student! Unfortunately, students aren’t rigorously trained, if at all, in the use of time management tools, and so students are unintentionally taught to place very low value on the idea.

For now, an army of teachers continue to blame students and assign grades for outcomes that have always been dependent on time management skills never taught.

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