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Underground Railroad

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, a term that was coined during the 1840s to designate a system of secret networks of escape routes and hiding places used by runaway blacks seeking safety as they made their way from the southern slave states to freedom in the North. To aid these runaways, sympathetic Americans served as "conductors" along these land and sea routes stretching out of the South through the North and into Canada.

The concept of a system of escape routes out of slavery predates the antebellum era, when the development of train travel inspired the clever appellation "underground Railroad." During the colonial period, a viable system of escape routes existed as both a protest and political movement. The "railroad" of these years engaged enslaved and free blacks, whites, and significantly, Native Americans. Its changing character over time allows for a generalized thesis about the railroad's three phases of development.

During the initial phase, Native American nations like the Tuscaroras aided fugitive slaves as part of their war against the colony of North Carolina at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Tuscaroras and blacks formed a community, first in eastern North Carolina, and then as maroons in the great Dismal Swamp. When the Tuscaroras were invited to join the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the center for the Native American freedom networks shifted to Iroquois country in colonial New York. After American independence, fugitives could fabricate free identities through the Iroquois binational system of encampments. Native Americans in the Deep South often accommodated slavery, but on the frontier of planter society they endangered the slaveholders' enterprise. The outlying Seminole nation, an Afro-Indian people in Florida, took abetting fugitive slaves to its logical limit. Blacks among the Seminoles became not only free but also constituent citizens and soldiers.

The early freedom networks organized by European settlers in British North America originally stemmed from religious conscience. German Quakers in Pennsylvania were the first to renounce slavery on religious authority in 1688. Quakers and other pietists slowly moved from benevolence toward blacks to a faith-driven collaboration to aid fugitives. Like the "righteous gentiles" of a later period, these conscientious believers took personal responsibility for the earthly fate of the oppressed. Quakers,


Dunkers, Mennonites, and Shakers, later joined by those from the theologically radical wings of Baptism and Methodism, almost certainly constituted the first institutional skeleton of the later, secular, and more elaborate underground Railroad.

In its third phase, the sophistication of the underground Railroad of the antebellum period was propelled by a number of important developments. The rise of a republican "conscience"—a secular antislavery sensibility parallel to the Christian one—swelled the numbers of Americans willing to risk aiding fugitives. The ideology of the Revolution and consequent state emancipations in New England raised serious doubts about the compatibility of republicanism and slavery. Moreover, the rapidly growing class of free blacks became the new engine for the railroad. Harriet Tubman's amazing career is emblematic of this important shift. Free blacks identified with the slaves, provided places of refuge in their settlements, and were most often the engineers to freedom in both the South and the North.

The Underground Railroad as a social movement matured during the first half of the nineteenth century, when its various constituencies began to merge ideologically as abolitionists and intellectually as a spiritually influenced grassroots republican faction. The spokesmen for slavery were right to fear this movement. The railroad was, in an important sense, simply a functional arm of radical abolitionism. It engaged abolitionists committed to immediate and concrete action against slavery. In addition, in helping individual women and men escape to freedom, the railroad facilitated creation of the most potent weapon of abolitionism: first-hand testimony on the evils of slavery. Frederick Douglass was the most famous of these witnesses. Douglass, in turn, assisted hundreds of runaways to freedom from his home base in Rochester, New York.

The political, moral, and financial effectiveness of the railroad was underscored in the congressional debates of 1850, out of which grew the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This extreme extension of federal power in the interest of slavery incited fierce protest in the North and set the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution against and over the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendments. The railroad almost certainly provoked this political blunder.

In its final fifteen years, the influence of the underground Railroad increased due to continued resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act in the North, while simultaneously providing clandestine aid to fugitives and free blacks there, especially those subject to the racial violence that swept the region. The railroad disbanded when emancipation was assured by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bland, Sterling Lecatur, Jr. Voices of the Fugitives: Runaway Slave Stories and Their Fictions of Self-Creation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolitionist Movement. New York: Harper, 1941.

Franklin, John Hope, and Schweninger, Loren. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hunter, Carol M. To Set the Captives Free: Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen and the Struggle for Freedom in Central New York, 1835–1872. New York: Garland, 1993.

Mitchell, William M. The underground Railroad. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970.

Harold S.Forsythe

See alsoAntislavery ; Fugitive Slave Acts ; Slave Insurrections ; Slave Rescue Cases ; Slavery .

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"Underground Railroad." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Underground Railroad." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/underground-railroad

Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad, in U.S. history, loosely organized system for helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada or to areas of safety in free states. It was run by local groups of Northern abolitionists, both white and free blacks. The metaphor first appeared in print in the early 1840s, and other railroad terminology was soon added. The escaping slaves were called passengers; the homes where they were sheltered, stations; and those who guided them, conductors. This nomenclature, along with the numerous, somewhat glorified, personal reminiscences written by conductors in the postwar period, created the impression that the Underground Railroad was a highly systematized, national, secret organization that accomplished prodigious feats in stealing slaves away from the South. In fact, most of the help given to fugitive slaves on their varied routes north was spontaneously offered and came not only from abolitionists or self-styled members of the Underground Railroad, but from anyone moved to sympathy by the plight of the runaway slave before his eyes. The major part played by free blacks, of both North and South, and by slaves on plantations along the way in helping fugitives escape to freedom was underestimated in nearly all early accounts of the railroad. Moreover, the resourcefulness and daring of the fleeing slaves themselves, who were usually helped only after the most dangerous part of their journey (i.e., the Southern part) was over, were probably more important factors in the success of their escape than many conductors readily admitted.

In some localities, like Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Wilmington, Del., and Newport, Ind. (site of the activities of Levi Coffin), energetic organizers did manage to loosely systematize the work; Quakers were particularly prominent as conductors, and among the free blacks the exploits of Harriet Tubman stand out. In all cases, however, it is extremely difficult to separate fact from legend, especially since relatively few enslaved blacks, probably no more than between 1,000 and 5,000 a year between 1830 and 1860, escaped successfully. Far from being kept secret, details of escapes on the Underground Railroad were highly publicized and exaggerated in both the North and the South, although for different reasons. The abolitionists used the Underground Railroad as a propaganda device to dramatize the evils of slavery; Southern slaveholders publicized it to illustrate Northern infidelity to the fugitive slave laws. The effect of this publicity, with its repeated tellings and exaggerations of slave escapes, was to create an Underground Railroad legend that correctly represented a humanitarian ideal of the pre–Civil War period, but that strayed far from reality.

The pioneer study is W. H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898, repr. 1968); for extensively revised accounts, see L. Gara, The Liberty Line (1961) and E. Foner, Gateway to Freedom (2015).

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"Underground Railroad." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Underground Railroad

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD


For the first few decades of the new nation, state after state in the North passed emancipation laws freeing slaves or future children of slaves. By the early 1800s the North had essentially abolished slavery. In the South, however, where slavery was much more crucial to the economy, emancipation was making little to no progress. By the 1830s Northern abolitionists, impatient with the very slow progress, adopted more radical tactics to end slavery. Evangelical Christian groups took the lead in demanding immediate emancipation of slaves without compensation to the slave owners. A newly formed American Anti-Slavery Society grew quickly to approximately 150,000 members by 1840. Abolitionism, however, remained largely unsupported by most Northern politicians. For instance, a major campaign to distribute anti-slavery literature in the South in the 1830s was stopped by pro-slavery interests with the help of President Andrew Jackson (18291837).

Meanwhile, slaves increasingly sought freedom by escaping to the North, often with assistance from Northern sympathizers. In a move that many saw as governmental sanction of slavery, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The act required Northern states to return runaway slaves and established harsh penalties for individuals assisting runaways.

In reaction, abolitionists fashioned the Underground Railroad. Neither a railroad nor underground, it was a hidden network composed primarily of people and places extending in all directions to help runaway slaves. Operating largely in darkness and disguise, free blacks with assistance from sympathetic Northerners provided direction, food, and shelter for those seeking freedom in the North or in Canada. The system, coded in railroad terminology for secrecy, consisted of various routes (lines), hiding places (stations), and assistants (conductors) who helped to transport escapees along the way. The escaped slaves were called packages or freight. The journey often required money for transportation, food, and bribes. The escapees used most anything for transportation, including travel by foot, small boat, covered wagon, and even in boxes shipped by rail or sea. Stations consisted of barns, cellars, attics, and secret rooms. The most heavily used routes were through Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania.

Due to the passage of the 1850 act, the desired destination for many runaway slaves became Canada, where they would be safe from U.S. lawmen and fugitive-slave hunters who could not cross the international border. A particularly common destination for many was Southern Ontario, with the Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls serving as one well-used border crossing.

Through the Underground Railroad's years of operation until the conclusion of the American Civil War (18611865), an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 slaves sought freedom; because of the dire need for secrecy no records were kept. Because of the great danger in assisting slaves, no more than 3,000 people actually assisted, but the knowledge of the Underground Railroad's existence served to stir Northern sympathy toward the plight of the slaves. Some Northerners supported the effort for economic reasons as well. The industrial North was becoming increasingly agitated at the South's economy, which was based on unpaid slave labor, and the Railroad offered one means of undercutting the South's economy.

Many people associated with the Underground Railroad became well known, most notably Harriet Tubman (c18201913). A former slave herself who escaped through the system, Tubman traveled to the South on 19 occasions in the 1850s, recruiting those willing to take the chance of freedom. She reportedly helped 300 slaves directly through her own action. Harriet Beecher Stowe (18111896), who authored Uncle Tom's Cabin during this time, assisted fugitive slaves in Cincinnati, Ohio. Levi Coffin, a Quaker in Indiana, assisted more than 3,000 slaves from his home. Frederick Douglass (c18171895) was a fugitive slave who rose to prominence as an eloquent statesman for the abolitionists.

The Underground Railroad, impressive for its success, longevity, and complexity, was yet one more factor aggravating hostilities between the North and South. The Railroad has been noted as one of the more significant humanitarian efforts in U.S. history.

See also: Fugitive Slave Act, Slavery


FURTHER READING

Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Mayer, Henry. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Rogers, William B. We Are All Together Now: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Prophetic Tradition. New York: Garland Publishers, 1995.

Runyon, Randolph P. Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Sprague, Stuart S., ed. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad. New York: Norton, 1996.

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Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad Name given to a secret network in the USA organized by free blacks and other abolitionists before the American Civil War to assist slaves escaping from the South. In fact, most escapees reached the North by their own efforts. In the North they were guided through a series of safe houses to a place of safety, often Canada.

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"Underground Railroad." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Underground Railroad." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/underground-railroad

Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad in the US, a secret network for helping slaves escape from the South to the North and Canada in the years before the American Civil War. Escaped slaves were given safe houses, transport, and other assistance, often by members of the free black community.

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"Underground Railroad." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Underground Railroad

Un·der·ground Rail·road a secret network for helping slaves escape from the South to the North and to Canada in the years before the Civil War.

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