Richard Hudlin, a technical writer and native St. Louisan, grew up hearing about his great-great-grandfather Peter, a free black man who risked his freedom and perhaps his very life helping fugitive slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. He'd heard about the runaways in crates who arrived at his ancestor's North St. Louis house and were hurried to a basement until nightfall afforded the chance to spirit them across the Mississippi, where their journey continued somewhere near Alton, Ill. Peter Hudlin's was a selfless sacrifice. Like other conductors, he hid his actions from friends and neighbors. He dared not tell runaways his address or even his name for fear they might be captured and betray him to slavecatchers with whips and other means of forced persuasion.
At the close of the 20th century, the silence that was Peter Hudlin's greatest ally is his great-great-grandson's biggest enemy.
Richard Hudlin wanted to see the spot where Peter Hudlin and his wife, Nancy, became heroes, if only to their descendants, but their secrecy and the passage of time had covered their tracks. Hudlin spent hours at City Hall, the public library and the state historical society poring over documents, sometimes finding nothing after an entire day's work. He eventually found antebellum city directories and two deeds of trust -- one dated 1857, the other dated 1865 -- showing the couple owned property on 13th Street between O'Fallon and Cass avenues. But there was no address-numbering system that could pinpoint the location. The most pregnant clue lay in the deeds of trust, both of which mentioned a survey. Hudlin started calling title companies. Eventually he found one with the survey and a detailed map of St. Louis City Block 589, circa the Civil War, that had been Peter Hudlin's neighborhood. Hudlin drove straight from the title-company office to the site and paced off the measurements.
"It's in the parking lot for some Domino's Pizza," he says. But that didn't lessen Hudlin's feelings that day some four years ago. "It was such a rush of emotions," he recalls. "It's like what the pilgrims feel when they go to Lourdes or how an artist feels going to the Louvre. It was really something."
It's also an all-too-typical experience. "It's so sad," says Diane Miller. "We have lost so many of these things. What we have particularly lost are the homes of the African-American conductors. A lot of them were in areas that got decimated by urban renewal. I think we're still losing them."
Tales of the Underground Railroad abound in and around St. Louis. Caves along the Mississippi River once hid slaves bound for Illinois, according to local lore. Across the river, six sites in Alton are contained in a 1995 National Park Service survey that marked the beginning of a coordinated nationwide effort to commemorate the Underground Railroad and preserve what's left. The survey lists just two places in Missouri: a cave near Hannibal and the Old Court House in St. Louis, where Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom.
Missouri isn't alone. Maps of suspected Underground Railroad routes spiderweb the north but stop abruptly at the Mason-Dixon line. Historians say states where slavery was allowed have typically been slow to research and preserve Underground Railroad sites, reflecting uneasiness with a past marked by bloodshed and legalized cruelty -- folks just don't want to talk about it. But that doesn't mean Northern abolitionists who harbored runaway slaves didn't have counterparts in the South. "They (escaped slaves) had to come from some place," notes Miller, national coordinator for the National Park Service's Underground Railroad project. "They didn't just catapult over there."
Historians working independently have found and preserved sites, but there has been little coordination, especially between states. Just as the grassroots established and ran the Underground Railroad, grassroots historians, many without academic credentials, have uncovered it. After two years of planning, the Park Service in October will launch a program aimed at finding sites, authenticating them and linking them in a national network. It's brand-new business for the Park Service, which is more accustomed to landmarks like the Arch than a sociopolitical movement based as much on tales as on bricks and mortar. "We're trying to bridge the gap a little bit," Miller explains. "Most of us who are working on it for the Park Service, we all have the academic degrees. But we also respect the work that's been happening at the community level because it's so involved with oral tradition and family stories. You can't really get to this history if you dismiss that. I don't know if I want to call it a failing, but that's one of the things that's happened in the past. A lot of that has been dismissed, and people haven't looked further."
The void between officialdom and grassroots closed a bit last month in St. Louis, where Gateway High School teacher Chip Clatto in late August won a one-year extension of a permit allowing his team of students to continue an archeological dig at a home at 3314 Lemp Ave. The dilapidated home once quartered slaves, according to neighborhood legend. Officials were slow to accept the potential importance of the site, and minds didn't change until the city had already demolished the house, filling the basement with debris that has complicated the task of investigating whether there is any truth to the stories. But Clatto and his students are pressing on.