'Railroad' stops are more than bricks and mortar

Lewis Hayden, an African-American "conductor" on the early 19th-century Underground Railroad, would answer his front door with a match and a challenge.

"If you've come to search my home for runaway slaves," he would say to the federal marshals, "I will blow this house up before I will allow you to come in." Beneath the stairs, just a few feet away, sat a pile of dynamite, ready to carry out his threat.

This is just one of the remarkable glimpses into a little-known history explored in Homes of the Underground Railroad (HGTV, Feb. 24, 9-10 p.m.).

The hour-long special takes viewers into the homes of seven families who opened their residences to slaves making their way north from slavery in the Southern states. While the route was traveled by fleeing slaves throughout most of the early 19th century, from 1850 until the Civil War, it was a federal crime to harbor runaway slaves in the United States.

For a freed slave such as Hayden, the stakes were nearly as high as for those he was helping. He stood to lose his home, be fined, or even be imprisoned.

The show aims to dispel popular misconceptions about the northward route, the first being that there was a single path from slavery.

"There were many routes, and many people helping along the way," says filmmaker Chris Wheeler.

Perhaps the most important notion Mr. Wheeler hopes to dispel is the image of the Underground Railroad as being conducted solely by whites.

"The fact is that many of these escaping slaves looked first to other African-Americans for help," he says.

The reason this has often been overlooked is simple - lack of documentation.

"Scholars are still learning about the railroad," Wheeler says. "So much was at stake if people were caught harboring slaves, so very little was written down."

Oral histories are the primary source of much of the information about the routes and participants. But the homes also stand as powerful, if mute, witnesses to the importance and role of each stop along the way.

The Rankin home stands high on a cliff above the Ohio River. It sits on the dividing line between the slave state of Kentucky and the free Northern state of Ohio and was often the first place of refuge for runaways. A simple brick structure, it was built by a Presbyterian minister named John Rankin, who hid the fugitives in an alcove above his stairs.

"I love the Rankin house," says Wheeler, who spent seven months filming in the seven featured homes.

"It is so powerful and simple, sitting on top of that bluff. You can imagine the emotions of the people as they arrived. You do sort of feel something when you're there."

While other featured homes are equally modest, the program makes clear that abolitionists of every social station put their homes and lives on the line for the people pursuing freedom.

One of the most affluent homes is Seward House, a Victorian built in Auburn, N.Y., by presidential hopeful William Seward. He later served in Lincoln's cabinet and helped draft the Emancipation Proclamation.

Scholars interviewed for the show make the point that the conductors who ran the railroad were not the only heroes.

The biggest heroes were the slaves who risked everything to make their way to freedom, says Deborah Gray White of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "These people risked not ... [just] their reputations, not just jail terms, but their lives."

The filmmaker hopes the show will resonate with viewers in a post-9/11 world.

"These homes are not about just bricks and mortar," Wheeler says. "They are symbols of all the things this country represents."

In light of the Sept. 11 attacks, he says, the stories of the Underground Railroad conductors give us a new appreciation of freedom.

"They represent all that's right ... helping citizens out even if you don't know them," Wheeler says. "The message of the Underground Railroad is particularly poignant these days."

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