This Thursday, February 26, our Evenings Upstairs Program welcomes Daryl Harris, professor of Theatre and Dance at Northern Kentucky University, and his exploration of the Underground Railroad in Kentucky with the program “Wanted: Freedom – Dead or Alive.”

So that got us to thinking here in the Local and Family History Department…was Paducah part of the Underground Railroad?

Because Kentucky was a border state between north and south, the Ohio River became a symbolic “River Jordan,” a line that needed to be crossed to enter into the safer haven of the north. With Paducah at the junction of so many important inland waterways, it only makes sense that our city would have been a point of escape. In fact, Paducah is identified in a program developed by KET, as one of five crossing points in Western Kentucky; the others being Diamond Island (west of Henderson), Henderson itself, east of Henderson toward the Little Pigeon River, and Owensboro.

However, because the Underground Railroad was an “underground” operation, very little hard evidence exists that Paducah was on the route. Personal accounts, historical records, and physical remnants are hard to come by, if they exist at all.

Yet, one piece of anecdotal evidence exists that Paducah was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and that is found in the lyrics to the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” African American songs from the slavery era were sometimes thought to contain codes, hidden instructions intended to guide escaping slaves toward freedom.

“When the sun come back/ when the first quail call,/then the time is come/follow the drinking gourd.”

The above lyrics, the first verse of the song, is said to refer to springtime, specifically mid-April, and the drinking gourd itself is thought to reference the stars of the Big Dipper, which point toward the North Star. With the star as a reference, subsequent verses of the song are thought to draw a map northward from Mobile, Alabama through Mississippi and Tennessee.

Following that trail, the last verse of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” then states:

“Where the great big river meets the little river/follow the drinking gourd./The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom/If you follow the drinking gourd.”

The big river and the little river are thought to reference and the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, and if the lyrics of the song are believed to be a coded message, than the culminating point of the map leads right here, to the banks at Paducah.

However, there are many scholars who believe the coded messages in the song are only myth, the extension of folktale, and that any belief in a hidden map is only willful conjecture. As such, that brings us right back to our original statement about the presence of the Underground Railroad in Paducah…hard evidence is difficult to come by.

See what you think. Click on the following link to read more about the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (www.followthedrinkinggourd.org), and be sure to join us for the Evening Upstairs program with Professor Harris on Thursday, February 26, at 7 PM.

And for more information about African American history in our region, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.

–Matt Jaeger