3. The Upperground Railroad
The "Upperground Railroad" map focuses on the connection between Rochester's industrial development in the mid-1800s (specifically in the context of railroad lines), the influence of said development on the abolitionist movement in Rochester, the potential presence of the Underground Railroad in Geneseo's local history, and the impact of all of these factors on the concept of romanticized history.
"Upperground Railroad" is a term coined by Frederick Douglass in his 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and was designed to criticize those who personally emphasized their work at helping escaped slaves. This, Douglass argued, was counterproductive to the cause as a whole:"I honor those good men and women for their noble daring, and applaud them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the escape of slaves. I, however, can see very little good resulting from such a course, either to themselves or the slaves escaping; while, upon the other hand, I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst they do much towards enlightening the master. They stimulate him to greater watchfulness, and enhance his power to capture his slave. We owe something to the slave south of the line as well as to those north of it; and in aiding the latter on their way to freedom, we should be careful to do nothing which would be likely to hinder the former from escaping from slavery. I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency. Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother. But enough of this. I will now proceed to the statement of those facts, connected with my escape, for which I am alone responsible, and for which no one can be made to suffer but myself." Although those speaking of their work on the Underground Railroad may have good intent, it is damaging narcissism in Douglass' eyes. Such personal glorification clouds both pragmatism and truth; not all that different from the romanticization of abolitionist history that still occurs today.
The irony of efforts to romanticize history is demonstrated paticularly well in the rumoured Underground Railroad tunnel on Geneseo's Main Street. The local online Geneseo news source, The Genesee Sun, reported in the summer of 2015 that an Underground Railroad tunnel used by escaped slaves had been discovered on Main Street. “One day while in their front yard, Ingalls and McTarnaghan noticed what appeared to be the mother of all woodchuck holes near Main Street, and discovered a secret tunnel parallel to Court Street for smuggling escaped slaves from the Genesee River to the basement of 5 Main. The tunnel extends from what is now the intersection of Rte. 63 and Court Street to the coal bin of 5 Main, passing under what is now part of the SUNY campus and several residences.”
However, after “digging” a little bit further, it quickly becomes apparent that the role of this tunnel in the context of the abolitionist movement is nothing more than a romanticized rumor. Livingston County Historian Aimee Alden, when consulted, stated that it was highly unlikely that escaped slaves would pass through an area such as Geneseo due to its population density at the time and the increased likelihood of being caught. Geneseo was the center of commerce in Livingston County of the day, and would have posed a serious risk to those attempting to pass unnoticed on their way to Canada. “What really bothers me about the tunnel incident is the assumption that always exists in terms of history. That particular location is especially odd because that particular building on Main Street was a factory (most likely a machine shop and lumber business). I believe that the tunnel was a waste tunnel for the factory... The canal built connecting the Erie Canal to Olean would have actually been the ideal way to travel as it was far more direct" (Amie Alden interview). What was idealized as a historical relic of the Undergound Railroad upon further research was most likely a waste disposal tunnel. How very romantic!
This exhibit includes sources that have been specifically selected to give an overview of the many contributing and sometimes contradicting factors that compose this aspect of romanticized history. By exploring these sources in the context of the Upperground Railroad map, viewers can get a taste of how history is shaped by both historical and contemporary records, as well as how history can be molded to fit a desired conception of the past.