Telling the Story of Clinton's Underground Railroad History

Students from the School of Library and Information Science undertook a project to collect and digitize the records of local historians regarding the history of the Underground Railroad in Clinton. 

The Clinton area's role in the Underground Railroad is not widely known, even among local residents. This projected culminated in creation of a publicly accessible LibGuide, an easy-to-use content management system.

In Fall 2022, students in the course Humanities Librarianship, taught by Jennifer Burek Pierce, collected the resources for the guide and explored whether or not new source material could be uncovered through searching online databases. During Spring 2023, students in the course Information Organization, taught by Micah Bateman, designed the LibGuide.

The LibGuide can be accessed at: 

The results of the work in the Fall 2022 semester resulted in four important conclusions and one recommendation for further research, as summarized by Dr. Burek Pierce below:

After identifying extensive numbers of published works and databases of primary and secondary sources that could have content regarding the Underground Railroad in Clinton and the region, developing search queries and exercises for students to explore, I have concluded that further information about the Clinton community's involvement with the Underground Railroad will not be found through these resources. 

There are multiple reasons for this, of which four seem most important.  One has to do with the nature of the site, two have to do with available resources, and one has to do with the methodology. 

  • First, there are date ranges during which the Underground Railroad was most active, and Clinton was not an incorporated municipality during many of those years.  This makes locating activity specific to Clinton somewhat less likely. 
  • Second, while there were Black newspapers that highlighted Black voices and perspective in Iowa during this time, preservation of them was problematic.  Some that have been preserved are damaged and therefore partial, and there are no remaining copies of what was the biggest and most central of the Black newspapers from this era (see
  • Third, there are digitized resources that identify and preserve the voices of people who were enslaved, but much of this media focuses geographically on southern states (e.g.,; also, Iowa archives like the IWA focus on more recent historical eras and thus do not have material germane to this subject.
  • Fourth, at the same time that I have looked for resources to search, determined appropriate search terminology and strategies for students to use in various resources, and students have built on this work, I have also looked for research on parallel projects.  What I have learned through that secondary research, and what students have concluded through parallels to their dissertation research, is that the sort of searching we've been doing is unlikely to yield more in-depth information that Clinton seeks.

Recently, the AHA has highlighted projects that successfully recover institutional histories of slavery, and they offer insights into the work that is necessary to do this sort of very necessary historical reexamination: 

  • First, I'm finding that while this work sometimes happens in conjunction with a course, it also rests heavily on the establishment of working groups that will engage with the research and related work over years.  Penn has created one such group:  The prevalence of this model is recognized by the establishment of the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium:
  • The more time we have spent with this project, the more we believe that the desired information is most likely to come from careful and considered reexamination of particular kinds of primary sources.  This means, for example, reexamining correspondence that hasn't been considered potentially relevant -- broadly, our field is interested in a practice called reparative indexing that reassesses primary source documents for their ability to speak to the experience of people not deemed central when the finding aids were created.  It also, in this matter, likely means identifying court cases and reexamining the associated documents for potential commentary.  This sort of work would require a focused course and likely the sort of continuous work of the sort modeled by Penn, Georgetown, UVa, and other institutions.

Thus, while there is a robust collection of documents and media for the LibGuide, our searches have not yielded the sort of information that the Clinton community hoped we would be able to produce.  Having examined, extensively, the materials on the Underground Railroad in Iowa, we do believe this is important work and value the community's interest in learning more in order to offer new representations of this movement. 

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