Dr. Cheryl LaRoche’s book, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance was released on January 13, 2014 and she says it’s been a long journey to get to this point. Weaving a story about the enslaved and geography, she traveled around the country for at least five years developing her thesis. But I would say in many ways, Dr. LaRoche invested a career in this endeavor. When I first met her in 1992, Cheryl was a conservator for the African Burial Ground Project. I know some of those years and experiences have fallen onto the pages of this book.
I had the pleasure of conducting a phone interview with our author the other day and here are a few nuggets:
“When you think about the Underground Railroad, it is a land based operation, – moving from one section of the country (where slavery exists) to another where it doesn’t take place – You must negotiate the land to get your freedom. We haven’t focused in on the land itself in the exploration of the Underground Railroad. When you start to read the land you come up with some different conclusions."
She spoke of iron furnace regions in places like Maryland, Virginia and Ohio, where "veins of iron ran more or less like rivers. Enslaved African Americans work, as iron masters, sometimes they are blacksmiths, laborers, doing all kinds of stuff. They are expert at these jobs. They know the land. They understand the landscape and many use their knowledge and expertise to escape from bondage."
I probed her further about the runaways.
“A debate rages about what the numbers were, but the runaway ads are the tip of the iceberg, if you are really successful you are never heard of again.”
A list of Dr. LaRoche's academic and professional achievements and affiliations would take an hour to write – I'll cherry pick five things that are representative—she works at the Smithsonian, consults or has consulted for the Josiah Henson site, the Harriet Tubman by-way tour, the African American Museum of Philadelphia and the Duffield Street Project here in Brooklyn.
If the weather and my luck hold (and I won't tempt fate by talking about either), Dr. LaRoche is giving the first New York City presentation of her book at Columbus Library at 742 10th Avenue between 50th and 51st streets in Manhattan on Tuesday February 11 at 4 p.m. Amazingly, admission is free. She will have books for sale and signing.
Even though it is the shortest month of the year, February is still African American History month. I am going to spend the occasion specifically celebrating Paul Robeson, John Brown and Dr. Cheryl Janifer LaRoche.
I have yet to read Dr. LaRoche's book. I will and hopefully by the end of the month post something I'll call Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance - Dr. Cheryl LaRoche, Part 2 - in which I'll offer a brief, (dare I say) cutting edge review of the book and I hope a few more words from Dr. LaRoche.
Now I’ll conclude with this description of Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance cobbled together from a press release by Dr. LaRoche's publisher University Press of Illinois:
In this enlightening study, Cheryl Janifer LaRoche employs the tools of archaeology to uncover a new historical perspective on the Underground Railroad. Unlike previous histories, which concentrated on frightened fugitive slaves and their benevolent abolitionist accomplices, LaRoche focuses instead on free African American communities, the crucial help they provided to individuals fleeing slavery, and the terrain where those flights to freedom occurred. Exploring the religious and fraternal institutions at the heart of these free African American communities, LaRoche demonstrates how the AME and Baptist churches and Prince Hall Masons, in addition to Quakers, provided both physical and social structures that fostered escape from slavery.