Reviving the Memory
of the Underground Railroad
When Harriet Tubman, the last living major figure of the Underground Railroad, died in 1913, interest in the Underground Railroad still ran high but soon began to wane. Other than a slight resurgence in the 1930s, the memory of the Underground Railroad began to slip from the national consciousness until by the mid-twentieth century many American adults either had not heard of the Underground Railroad at all or took the name literally as a kind of subway for fugitives.
Until the 1960s, few schools at any level included the Underground Railroad in history curricula and even fewer text books made mention of the Underground Railroad, even at the college level. Underground Railroad safe-house site owners, families whose ancestors had been Underground Railroad freedom seekers, conductors or safe-house operators, and others who prized the legacy of the Underground Railroad remained as a rapidly dwindling repository of this nation-defining American legacy. The war for the soul of America, what Underground Railroad Free Press regards as a most defining root of the national conscience, was well along in being relegated to the dusty, nearly forgotten back shelves of history.
Beginning in the 1960s, a reawakening of Underground Railroad interest began when teachers on their own, at first a few and then many, began instructing on the Underground Railroad. Soon, whole school districts picked up on this and began including the Underground Railroad in their teaching. In the 1990s, the walk of Anthony Cohen, descendant of two Underground Railroad freedom seekers, retracing the route to freedom of one of his ancestors from Maryland to Canada, appeared as an article in Smithsonian magazine, triggering a further resurgence of interest in the Underground Railroad. About the same time, Cohen founded the Menare Foundation, the first modern nationwide Underground Railroad organization. This was followed by growing numbers of owners of Underground Railroad safe-houses and routes publicizing the histories of their properties and permitting public access.
In 1998, the United States Congress in a signal event created the Network to Freedom, a National Park Service program celebrating the Underground Railroad. Since then, two other federal Underground Railroad programs sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Department of Education have been created. In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the much-lauded Cincinnati museum, was launched.
Following in 2005 came Fergus Bordewich's Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, the definitive Underground Railroad history, providing the fullest portrait of the Underground Railroad. We highly recommend this book. Others are now busy producing state and national site listings, histories of individual sites, biographies of Underground Railroad figures, and even some good Underground Railroad fiction as the reawakening of the North American memory of the Underground Railroad becomes more and more deliberate. In 2015, Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, was published.
With its launching in 2006, Underground Railroad Free Press was pleased to begin doing its part to bolster this growth and to coalesce Underground Railroad interest by providing regularly published objective reporting on contemporary issues and news regarding the Underground Railroad. Since then, Free Press has launched Lynx, the first comprehensive registry of contemporary Underground Railroad organizations; the annually awarded Free Press Prizes for contemporary Underground Railroad preservation, leadership and advancement of knowledge; and occasional surveys that we conduct on the international Underground Railroad community.