Time to bury legend of slave tunnel

April 21, 2006|By RALPH CLAYTON

Although urban legends abound in cities throughout the South, perhaps none have been more enduring than the tales of the existence of a slave escape tunnel beneath the Orchard Street Church in Baltimore's Seton Hill neighborhood.

Despite the lack of authentic historical documentation to substantiate the claims, the location continues to be regarded by many as a 19th-century stop on the Underground Railroad.

Much of the surviving oral history is filled with the buzz words that historians dread, such as "it is alleged," "oral tradition contends" and "what is believed to be."

One version of the story, published in Baltimore's Afro American newspaper in 1975, claimed that slaves who had assisted in digging the tunnel were craftsmen "brought to Baltimore to do fine building work on other downtown buildings." This account of the legend seemed all the more incredible when it was reported that the slaves had "worked by candlelight."

Four months later, a News-American journalist reported that "the slaves hand-dug tunnels which led from the church to the city's railroad stations."

In fact, there were no stations in the immediate vicinity of the church. Railroad officials, attempting to spot slaves boarding the "colored cars" with falsified freedom papers, often watched the few depots that did exist.

While the 1975 decision to add the church's 1880s structure to the National Register of Historic Places seemed appropriate, the authenticity of the tunnel's history continued to concern preservationists.

In January 1977, the local media uncovered a "power struggle" within the Committee for the Preservation of the Orchard Street Church. One reporter observed, "Only the oral tradition and the tunnel itself give credence to the claim that the church helped slaves to escape." Elizabeth M. Newman, a former member of the committee involved in researching the site, was quoted as saying, "Any talk of underground railroads is part of a fabricated myth."

To settle the issue, the Maryland State Commission on Afro-American History and Culture appointed architectural historian Elroy Quenroe to study the tunnel and present his conclusions.

Mr. Quenroe, with the assistance of Robert M. Vogel, a civil engineer from the Smithsonian Institution, conducted an investigation of soil, bricks, building materials and church records. By the spring of 1977, they reached a conclusion that was as disappointing to the commission as it was unexpected: The tunnel had been constructed as a portion of a heat conduit system.

Mr. Vogel, in a letter addressed to Mr. Quenroe, noted, "There is absolutely no doubt that the mysterious `tunnel' was built not for people, but for smoke. The tunnel is, in fact, an underground flue for carrying smoke from the heating furnace to the stack."

Mr. Quenroe said in a recent interview, "The church and building had their own rich architectural history. The congregation may well have been connected to and supported the `Underground Railroad' movement, but that was not my mission to investigate.

"I focused on the documentation of the architectural history of the building and the tunnel. I came to the conclusion, with the support of an engineer from the Smithsonian, that the shaft in question was most likely a chimney or fresh air draw for the heating system and probably dated from the early 20th century."

During a building renovation 15 years later, the property was re-examined by archaeologists. The study reinforced Mr. Quenroe's earlier observations.

In February 1993, Nancy Brennan, the executive director of the Baltimore City Life Museums, revealed that the structure had been determined to be "a heating tunnel connected to a chimney at the west end of the Sunday school building. The underground passageway leads nowhere but to the chimney. The bricks and mortar that make up the tunnel appear to date from 1903 - the same year the Sunday school was constructed."

That should have been the end of the story. It wasn't. Promotional materials continue to perpetuate the legend of the underground slave escape route. And the legend is growing.

In February, a Black History Month insert in The Sun noted that the Orchard Street Church "played a significant role as a station on the Underground Railroad. In the sub-basement, three floors below the ground level, there is a crawl space that travels across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to what is believed was once a shed and hiding space for fugitive slaves until the next `stop' on the railroad."

What harm is there in believing the legend?

What will suffer if we continue to tell our children that the tunnel was a stop on the Underground Railroad?

Nothing will suffer but the truth.

Ralph Clayton, who lives in Baltimore, is the author of "Cash For Blood: The Baltimore to New Orleans Domestic Slave Trade." His e-mail is rclayton1314@yahoo.com.

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