Rediscovering the Road to Freedom
On Nov. 4, 1857, three Black men walking along a road near the small town of Lynnville, in southern Iowa, were met by two White men who assured them they were friends and offered them a ride into town in their wagon.
“Do either of you know Arnold or Sparks?” the three African Americans asked.
“Yes,” their escorts answered. “We are Joseph Arnold and Matthew Sparks.”
Elated, one of the passengers pulled out a tattered piece of paper with those names — names of conductors on the Underground Railroad — written on it. It had been given to him and his traveling companions before they left what was then the Territory of Kansas.
The three Black men — runaway slaves named James F. Miller, Henry May, and John Ross — were taken to the home of C.B. White in Lynnville, where they stayed before continuing on to the town of Grinnell on their trek to freedom.
Arnold’s record of that meeting, which was written in 1861, survives in a brittle, dog-eared copy of the 1912 Jasper County annals, found in the tiny library of the county’s historical society museum in the city of Newton. As Iowa prepares to commemorate its role in the Underground Railroad 130 years ago, detailed accounts with names and dates such as this one are rare. And historians fear much of the trail has gone cold.
In May, Gov. Tom Vilsack signed into law the Iowa Freedom Trail Program. It calls for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs to research and commemorate the state’s role in the Underground Railroad.
Because of the difficulty in piecing together events more than a century old, department officials are turning to historians such as Galin Berrier of Ankeny for help. Berrier, an instructor at Des Moines Area Community College, wrote an annotated bibliography on the Underground Railroad in Iowa and a chapter on it for an upcoming book about Black history in the state.
“I think we can establish a general route, but whether we can establish one in real sharp detail, I don’t know,” says Berrier, adding that it will be much more difficult than documenting the state’s role in the very public trek of the Mormons from Illinois to Utah.
“Every time I discover something new, it raises two more new questions about things I don’t know” about the Underground Railroad, Berrier says. “It’s a strange thing: The more you learn, the less you know.”
For instance, although the outline of the tale of the three runaway slaves on their way to Lynnville has survived after all these years, Jasper County historians don’t know critical details — such as where C.B. White’s house was. State officials, still trying to decide how they will define the Iowa Freedom Trail Program, say that they are well aware of the pitfalls that face them.
“What we would like to do is document spots that were significant,” says Tom Morain, administrator of the State Historical Society in Des Moines. “But we don’t want to give the sense that you can plot the Underground Railroad line in Iowa.
“It was a pretty amorphous system,” he adds. “I think that’s the picture that’s emerging. There were routes. There was a bit of an organization to it in that you knew who was friendly down the road. But the idea that there was some master plan to this overstates the organizational structure.”
There are several reported Underground Railroad stops already well preserved around Iowa — the Todd House in Tabor and the Hitchcock House near Lewis, both in southwest Iowa. Also, there is the Jordan House in West Des Moines and the Lewelling House in Henry County in southeast Iowa.
“I think the major stops, the identified leaders where it’s well documented, those are places to tell the story,” Morain says. “Those could be places where you interpret the story, as long as we don’t draw this bronze map, and say, ‘This was the route.'”
That’s because much of the route has disappeared. There are other homes that are said to have been part of the Underground Railroad that long ago were torn down. Berrier ticks off the towns of Winterset, Clinton, and DeWitt as examples. Abolitionist John Brown made no secret of his stops in Iowa, which included a house in Springdale that no longer stands, Berrier says.
In some cases, the buildings weren’t strong enough to withstand the years. In others, the land and buildings were lost when towns dried up after being bypassed by the real railroad or, later, the highways.
In other cases, people didn’t talk about their roles, or their ancestors’ roles, because of the need for secrecy or the shame of having participated in something illegal, Berrier says. And those who did talk, he says, could have embellished their stories.
“There’s just all kinds of problems,” Berrier says. “The stories were lost before we ever got around to documenting them.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com