Underground Railroad

Introduction: Underground Railroad is a name given to the early 19th century secret movement organized to help black slaves escape from slavery. The movement was run by a variety of people that included white abolitionists, free blacks, freed slaves and fugitive slaves. The movement was neither underground nor had any railroad involved. The name was actually a symbolic term that defined the secret nature of the movement and the complex routes used by the fugitive slaves and their abettors to escape from southern slave states into northern Free states or Canada.

Background: Majority of slaves were not happy with their lives in slavery. They despised the conditions they were kept in and the way they were treated by their high handed white masters. Some slaves feigned sickness, used self mutilation or destroyed property to protest against slavery. Some slaves went a step ahead and escaped from captivity. These slaves were aided by the organizers of the Underground Railroad.

Once out of the slave states the fugitive slaves had little to worry. Although the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, made the state to which the fugitive slave belonged, responsible for hunting and recovering him, but the law was conveniently ignored by the government and citizens of free states, where the anti slavery sentiments were very strong. To avoid being captured by slave catchers looking for them even in Free states, majority of slaves chose to escape to Canada where slavery was illegal.

How it Worked: The Underground Railroad was a network of routes and safe houses that were used to escape out of slave states. Various railway terminologies were used by the perpetrators of this movement to describe components of the system. People who guided slaves to a railroad were called ‘agents’ and those transporting them were called ‘conductors’. Hiding places along the route were called ‘stations’ and owners of these hiding places were called ‘station masters’.

Escaped slaves were called ‘passengers’ and a slave who embarked on a journey along a route was described as ‘having obtained a ticket’. A single conductor was responsible for transporting passengers from one station to the other after which the passengers were handed over to the next conductor. To safeguard the secrecy of routes all conductors knew only about their area of concern. Fugitives and their conductors travelled only at night and mostly walked a distance of 30 miles every night to reach a station where they rested and hid during day hours. An estimated 100,000 slaves used Underground Railroad to escape from slavery.

Notable Leaders of the Movement: Among the most prominent and active leaders of the movement was Harriet Tubman. An escaped slave herself, this brave woman helped many fellow slaves escape from slavery. She made 13 trips to south and helped free more than 70 slaves. Other notable railroad workers were abolitionists John Brown (Harpers Ferry Raid fame), Levi Coffin (Coffin and his wife helped almost 2000 slaves in escaping from slavery) and Fredrick Douglass.

Civil War: The issue of slavery led to the civil war between Union and Confederacy. After the war started, many freed slaves and fugitives joined Union forces and fought against Confederate forces. At the end of Civil war, slavery was declared illegal through the 13th Amendment to the US constitution.

Many escaped slaves returned to United States from Canada where they had lived in free communities in Ontario and Nova Scotia mostly. Although a wide majority of escaped slaves chose to reside in Canadian territory, their experiences were not very good in Canada. The country had banned slavery but racial discrimination was still very common in the society.