Underground Railroad Freedom

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Underground Railroad History

The Underground Railroad Struggle for Freedom

The Atlantic slave trade, also known as the transatlantic slave trade, was the trade of African people supplied to the colonies of the "New World" that occurred in and around the Atlantic Ocean. It lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century.

 

The Underground Railroad, a vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada, was not run by any single organization or person. Rather, it consisted of many individuals -- many whites but predominantly black -- who knew only of the local efforts to aid fugitives and not of the overall operation. Still, it effectively moved hundreds of slaves northward each year -- according to one estimate, the South lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850.

An organized system to assist runaway slaves seems to have begun towards the end of the 18th century. In 1786, George Washington complained about how one of his runaway slaves was helped by a "society of Quakers, formed for such purposes." The system grew, and around 1831 it was dubbed "The Underground Railroad," after the then emerging steam railroads. The system even used terms used in railroading: the homes and businesses where fugitives would rest and eat were called "stations" and "depots" and were run by "stationmasters," those who contributed money or goods were "stockholders," and the "conductor" was responsible for moving fugitives from one station to the next.

For the slave, running away to the North was anything but easy. The first step was to escape from the slaveholder. For many slaves, this meant relying on his or her individual resources. Sometimes a "conductor," posing as a slave, would enter a plantation and then guide the runaways northward. The fugitives would move at night. They would generally travel between 10 and 20 miles to the next station, where they would rest and eat, hiding in barns and other out-of-the-way places. While they waited, a message would be sent to the next station to alert its stationmaster.

The fugitives would also travel by train and boat -- conveyances that sometimes had to be paid for. Money was also needed to improve the appearance of the runaways -- a black man, woman, or child in tattered clothes would invariably attract suspicious eyes. This money was donated by individuals and also raised by various groups, including vigilance committees.

Vigilance committees sprang up in the larger towns and cities of the North, most prominently in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. In addition to soliciting money, the organizations provided food, lodging and money, and helped the fugitives settle into a community by helping them find jobs and providing letters of recommendation.

The Underground Railroad had many notable participants, including John Fairfield in Ohio, the son of a slaveholding family, who made many daring rescues, Levi Coffin, a Quaker who assisted more than 3,000 slaves, and
Harriet Tubman
, who made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom.

Sources: National Park Service and PBS.

Recommended Reading: Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement. From 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.

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Related Reading:
 

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: 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: 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 U.S. 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. 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. Continued below…

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.

 

Recommended Viewing: 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.

This information is designed for the student interested in studying and researching: The Underground Railroad History, Underground Railroad Map, Underground Railroad Slaves and Escape Routes, Civil War Slavery and Underground Railroad Results, The Slave Trade, Underground Railroad Abolitionists, Slavery in U.S. History, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

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