CASS will continue to examine the Underground Railroad’s Northeast Corridor based on the four hypotheses mentioned above. It is a complex story that involves community conflict as well as moral decision-making. The broad conceptual framework of the initiative will integrate material culture, documentary history, oral tradition and folklore. While folklore and oral testimonies are sometimes controversial because they lack corroboration in written documentation, these sources are central to the African American experience and must be addressed in any examination of the Underground Railroad.
Because most slaves could not read or write, they were dependent on oral testimonies to tell their history. Additionally, storytelling was fundamentally important to most African cultures. Accordingly, the research is based on primary source documentation, including church, census and tax record, wills inventories, journals, letters and newspaper accounts. But it will also draw on the stories, anecdotes, and folklore that have been passed down through Northeastern Pennsylvania’s black families. While every effort will be made to distinguish the oral history from the documented material, both are critical to a multi-cultural understanding of the Underground Railroad.
Finally, CASS will continue to examine race relations in Northeastern Pennsylvania during the 20th century and look at implications of this history for the present. At a time when our country is looking to the past for examples of cooperation between white and black people to inform the current dialogue on race, the Underground Railroad is critical to understanding American’s national character and the responsibility of the individual in the face of injustice. How, for example, did white people and free black people reconcile their involvement or noninvolvement in a movement that was, according to civil law, “illegal”? What myths have developed about their involvement or non-involvement, and why? In what ways did race affect the enslaved black peoples’ identity and their relationship to the free black community, the larger white community, and to the fundamental institutions of democracy?
Ultimately, CASS hopes to begin to provide a thoughtful, historical framework for addressing these issues by exploring the complexities of black and white involvement on Northeastern Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad.