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.
The demolition last year came after the state Department of Natural Resources and the city concluded the home was likely built around 1864, after the demise of the Underground Railroad, and likely housed brewery workers. Last summer, Clatto's students found a cowrie shell similar to the type used as currency in Africa and a carved piece of bone resembling an elephant's tusk. A few yards away was the opening to a filled-in passageway that Clatto suspects is linked to caves that once led to the Mississippi and hid slaves en route to freedom. Then again, the passageways and caves may have been nothing more than a place for the Lemp Brewery to store kegs. No one knows for sure, but the state now says the possibility of Underground Railroad activity can't be ruled out. After hearing from state officials and Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th Ward), who assured commissioners demolition debris would be cleaned up and the students' work overseen by historians and archeologists with Ph.D.'s, the city Land Reutilization Authority on Aug. 30 extended for one year the excavation permit.
Although thankful for the chance to continue digging, Clatto remains critical of the city. "St. Louis has done a terrible job of preserving history," he says. "These people screwed up. The building didn't need to be demolished." The lack of official recognition doesn't mean there aren't churches and homes in Webster Groves, Des Peres and other communities where fugitive slaves found refuge, he says. He notes that Missouri was once home to more than 100,000 slaves. "There were runaways, and they had to go someplace," he says. "It pisses me off when people say there's never been a documented site."
Barbara Woods, director emeritus of the African-American studies department at St. Louis University, who has helped the Park Service develop its plan, is betting St. Louis will have a site on the national network within the next two years, but she won't name a leading candidate. "When you do that, the public takes one little piece and reinterprets it their way," she explains. "There's a lot of work to be done. What we do know through some research is, Underground Railroad activity certainly was taking place in Missouri. We know there was activity here in St. Louis just because of our neighbor Illinois. In terms of getting the documentation, it's not there. The leads are very interesting and very exciting."