Story of the Underground Railroad
Of the thousands of slaves who fled the plantations each
year, most never made it to freedom.
The Underground Railroad was neither "underground" nor a "railroad,"
but was a loose network of aid and assistance to fugitives from bondage. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand
enslaved persons may have escaped in the years between the American Revolution and the American Civil War.
The Underground Railroad refers to the effort--sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized--to
assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery. Historic places along the Underground Railroad
are testament of African American capabilities. The network provided an opportunity for sympathetic white Americans to play
a role in resisting slavery, and brought together, however uneasily at times, men and women of both races to begin to set
aside assumptions about the other race and to work together on issues of mutual concern. At the most dramatic level, the Underground
Railroad provided stories of guided escapes from the South, rescues of arrested fugitives in the North, complex communication
systems, and individual acts of bravery and suffering in the quest for freedom for all.
African Americans fled slavery in the South for a variety of reasons. Brutal
physical punishment, psychological abuse, and endless hours of hard labor without compensation drove many slaves to risk their
lives to escape plantation life. The death of a master usually meant that slaves would be sold as part of the estate, and
family relationships would be broken. While some slaves headed north with relatives of friends, most traveled alone, supported
by the kindness of other African Americans or abolitionist whites that they met on their journey. Only a small number
of slaves traveled by the organized network of routes, "conductors" and "stations" that came to be known as the Underground
|The Underground Railroad Map
|The Underground Railroad Map
African American men and women of all ages left the plantation and headed North for freedom. But most runaway
slaves were young men who could withstand the hardships of fugitive life. To escape the deep South and make it North to New
York, Massachusetts or Canada meant a journey of hundreds of miles -- usually on foot. Escaped slaves faced a life of hardship,
with little food, infrequent access to shelter or medical care, and the constant threat of local sheriffs, slave catchers
or civilian lynch mobs.
Plantation owners whose slaves ran away frequently placed runway slave advertisements
in local newspapers. Such ads often included a person's physical description, likely location or destination, and information
about temperament -- at least as perceived by the plantation owner. While rewards varied, they could run as high as $1,000
-- a not unreasonable price considering the lifetimes of free labor a Southern planter could hope to extract from a slave
and his or her children.
Not all runaway slaves fled to the North. Many fugitives sought refuge in
cities such as Atlanta, Charleston or Richmond, where they could blend easily into existing African American populations --
often with the assistance of other fugitives or free blacks. Some runaways established freedmen's encampments in rugged rural
areas where they could remain hidden from "slave catchers or local legal authorities." Such groups often supported themselves
by stealing food and supplies from nearby plantations.
For slaves who lived in the Border States of Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia, the journey to freedom could be short and less terrorizing. The long, unguarded
border of Pennsylvania, for example, represented an ideal opportunity for slaves in cities such
as Baltimore. Slaves who lived with access to fresh and saltwater ports often stowed away or hired on as hands on Northbound
vessels. Once they reached a free port, the fugitives jumped ship to freedom.
The passage of the second Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made escape from bondage more difficult. Under the provisions of the act, slaves
who escaped to free states or federal territories could be forcibly returned to their masters. Anyone who aided a fugitive
slave -- and federal marshals who failed to enforce the law -- faced severe punishment. Slaves taken to court for breaking
the fugitive slave law could not testify on their "own behalf," and were not allowed the right to a jury trial.
In the North, Hicksite Quakers and other abolitionists provided some
of the most organized support for the Underground Railroad. Particularly in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act, a night's
lodging, a place to hide from slave catchers, a meal, and covert transportation by wagon, boat or horseback proved welcome
to slaves fleeing the South.
Of the thousands of slaves who fled the plantations each year, most never
made it to freedom. Many returned to the plantation after a few days or weeks--tired, hungry and unable to survive as wanted
fugitives. Others were returned in chains after their capture by lawmen or professional slave catchers. The punishments these
slaves faced upon their return varied from verbal abuse to beatings, sale to another master, and even death.
A law to gradually phase out slavery in Upper Canada, which is now Ontario,
was passed in 1791. The British Empire, of which Canada was a part, abolished slavery throughout its territories in 1833.
Underground Railroad activity flourished in cities such as Rochester and Buffalo which were near the borders of Upper Canada.
For those who endured the long journey and all its hardships, Canada was the Promised Land.
Sources: PBS and National Park Service
The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts. Description: A "conductor" based in Philadelphia, Still (1821–1902) helped guide fugitive slaves to
safety in the years before the Civil War. He also created this unforgettable history, a collection of carefully preserved
letters, newspaper articles, and firsthand accounts about refugees' hardships, narrow escapes, and deadly struggles. Over
50 illustrations. "Highly recommended."
Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad
from Slavery to Freedom: A Comprehensive History (Dover
African-American Books). Description: This pioneering work was the first documented survey of a system that helped fugitive
slaves escape from areas in the antebellum South to regions as far north as Canada.
Comprising fifty years of research, the text includes interviews and excerpts from diaries, letters, biographies, memoirs,
speeches, and other firsthand accounts.
Recommended Reading: Bound for Canaan:
The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's
First Civil Rights Movement. Publishers Weekly: Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American
collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000
runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada.
Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad
from its earliest days in Revolution-era America
through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and
contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals
the Railroad to be much more complicated--and much more remarkable--than is usually understood. Continued below…
As a progressive movement that
integrated people across races and was underwritten by secular political theories but carried out by fervently religious citizens
in the midst of a national spiritual awakening, the clandestine network was among the most fascinatingly diverse groups ever
to unite behind a common American cause. What makes Bordewich's work transcend the confines of detached social history is
his emphasis on the real lives and stories of the Railroad's participants. Religious extremists, left-wing radicals and virulent
racists all emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right, and every
chapter has at least one moment--a detail, a vignette, a description--that will transport readers to the world Bordewich describes.
The men and women of this remarkable account will remain with readers for a long time to come.
Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Publishers Weekly: Myth and metaphor, the Underground
Railroad was also real in the lives of escaping slaves, in the activities (legal and illegal) of black and white people, free
and slave, who aided and abetted them and in the structures in which they found refuge. Bountifully illustrated with 78 color
and 174 black-and-white photos and other images, this collection also comprises highly, readable essays by 15 distinguished
historians. The first section, "Slavery and Abolition," lays a historical foundation with cogent accounts of slavery in the
colonial years and in the 19th century and of the antislavery movement. Continued below…
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,
the Civil War, William Still and Harriet Tubman are all carefully treated. Short-term stay escapes and long-term fugitive
communities within slave territory, escape by water, escape into Northern free black communities, escape to South Florida
and escape to Western Canada are all freshly covered, as are "current uses of the Underground Railroad in modern thought,
tourism, and public history." Eddie S. Glaude Jr. discusses the African-American appropriation of the Exodus story, with the
being Egypt rather than the Promised Land.
…A coherently arranged collection with two thought-provoking essays exploring the role of history and memory and probing
the current attention to the Underground Railroad that "says much about who we are as well as who we say we want to be."
Recommended Viewing: Underground
Railroad (History Channel) (150 minutes). Description: The Underground Railroad, "the first civil rights movement," was
no mere act of civil disobedience. The secret network of guides, pilots, and safe-house keepers (the Railroad's "conductors")
was built by runaway slaves who, over the decades, communicated their experiences through songs and secret gestures, and were
supported by abolitionists (many of them former slaves) who risked their own freedom to help free the enslaved. The "passengers"
risked their lives. Continued below…
A wealth of photos, documents,
and commentary by modern historians provides the broad lines of history, but it comes alive in the individual stories of conductors
and passengers, among them abolitionist and historian William Still, called the "Father of the Underground Railroad," and
Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself to freedom in a cargo crate. They
(and many others) take their place beside Harriet Tubman ("the Moses of her people") and Frederick Douglass as courageous
heroes in America's first integrated social movement. The DVD also features the Biography
episode on Frederick Douglass, the complete text of the Emancipation Proclamation, a biographical essay on Harriet Tubman,
and other historical background pieces.
Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad. Description:
Race to Freedom is worth watching as an introduction to the Underground Railroad. Some of the characters intertwined in the
story are actual historical figures who played roles in the Underground Railroad. … I used this movie in my U.S. History
class as we were discussing Slavery, the Underground Railroad and the events leading up to the Civil War. It gives a great
depiction of what slaves endured and their struggles to evade that yoke called “slavery.” …Very interesting
and engaging for students. Highly Recommended.
(Four-Disc 30th Anniversary Edition) (DVD) (573 minutes). Description: Based on Alex Haley's best-selling novel about his
African ancestors, Roots followed several generations in the lives of a slave family. The saga began with Kunta Kinte (LeVar
Burton), a West African youth captured by slave raiders and shipped to America in the 1700s. The family's saga is depicted
up until the Civil War where Kunte Kinte's grandson gained emancipation. Roots made its greatest impression on the ratings
and widespread popularity it garnered. On average, 130 million - almost half the country at the time - saw all or part of
the series. Interesting fact: Alex Haley was also the founding father of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Affairs Office.
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