Harding Lecture historian explores Henry David Thoreau, Underground Railroad

Renown historian Spencer Crew (pictured above) delivered an inspiring lecture on Friday Sept. 28 in Doty Hall. Crew is the former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and has done extensive research on the Underground Railroad (Catherine White/Editor-in-chief).

The Doty Recital Hall bustled with students, staff and residents of Geneseo on Friday Sept. 28 for the Walter Harding Lecture delivered by public historian Spencer Crew. 

Professor of English Paul Schacht began the lecture by introducing Crew who has a Ph.D. and is a Robinson professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia. Crew was the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Ohio.

The lecture centered around Henry David Thoreau, the Underground Railroad and slavery. Crew started by describing Thoreau’s mother and sister who were abolitionists in their home of Concord, Mass. 

Crew also dove into the history of Frederick Douglass and Lewis Hayden who were both runaway slaves, gained their freedom and spoke in Concord about abolishing slavery. These influences demonstrate the lens through which Thoreau might have seen the institution of slavery and civil society at the time. 

Next, Crew spoke on the misunderstood meanings of the Underground Railroad.

“Mythology grows up around the idea of the Railroad, and that makes for powerful stories and great folklore about it,” Crew said. “The challenge for us is to separate fact from fiction, what is real and what becomes larger than life.”

Aside from the romanticism and mysticism that surround the Underground Railroad, Crew believes that it is a lot less organized than people are taught.

“I think a better way to describe the Underground Railroad would be as an interesting activity which included a diverse array of individuals who were not nationally organized but were willing to help individuals that came to their doorsteps,” Crew said.

After he discussed the Underground Railroad, slavery and Thoreau’s upbringing in Concord, Crew argued that all these factors led to Thoreau’s belief in civil disobedience.

“I believe one of the key reasons that caused [Thoreau’s] shift in ideals is involvement in the Underground Railroad and the fact that he was talking to and having contact with individuals who were escaping to freedom from slavery,” Crew said. 

After the lecture ended, Crew answered questions from the audience. Some attendees asked about how to address modern-day issues and whether civil disobedience can be a tool in solving these issues. 

“I think it’s an effective solution,” Crew said. “I am of the mind that the work of Martin Luther King [Jr.] probably wouldn’t have been as effective without Malcom X. I think sometimes it’s the contrasting alternatives that cause people to change their decisions.”

International relations and political science double major junior Sydney Julien, who claims she is technically related to Thoreau through a distant relative on the Mayflower, learned more about the importance of the connection of Crew’s main points from this lecture.

“I didn’t realize how interconnected things were because when I think of Henry David Thoreau, I don’t really think of the Underground Railroad,” Julien said. “It’s interesting that he was somehow related to a whole bunch of other people who worked for abolition and the Underground Railroad.” 

Julien also highlighted the importance of this lecture in modern society. 

“I think the most important part was the modern application of lessons from the past and how we are able to take something people did historically and apply it to modern issues,” Julien said.

Professor of English and comparative literature Maria Lima found the fact that the past can guide present decisions especially relevant.

“Joan Scott in The Creation of Patriarchy makes this claim, ‘we only ask of the past questions that need answers in the present,’” Lima said. “So what historians do, revisiting the past, is significant because the present requires different kinds of activism.” 

Lima stressed that the present is in desperate need of taking lessons from the past to help our current situations.

“[We should] reevaluate the past because the present is so fucked up,” Lima said. “What Crew is doing is absolutely brilliant, his audience is very enlightened.” 

Crew’s lecture educated all in attendance. Whether an attendee learned the inspiration behind civil disobedience or the relevance of revisiting the past to help solve issues in the present, every person left the room with the seeds of change in their mind.