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“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
— Harriet Tubman
The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African-American and white, offering shelter and aid to escaped slaves from the South. It developed as a convergence of several different clandestine efforts. The exact dates of its existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century to the Civil War, after which it continued to undermine the Confederacy in a more open way.
The First Abolitionists
The Quakers were first to actively help escaped slaves. In 1786, George Washington accused Quakers of attempting to “liberate” one of his slaves. In the early 1800s, Quaker abolitionist Isaac T. Hopper set up a network in Philadelphia that helped slaves on the run. At the same time, Quakers in North Carolina established abolitionist groups that laid the groundwork for routes and shelters for escapees. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1816, was another proactive religious group helping fugitive slaves.
UNDERGROUND — John Legend and TNT’s short-lived television series was a story of American slaves traveling Harriet Tubman‘s Trail to Freedom.
The earliest mention of the Underground Railroad came in 1831 when slave Tice Davids escaped from Kentucky, into Ohio, and his owner blamed an “underground railroad” for helping Davids to freedom.
In 1839, a Washington newspaper reported an escaped slave named Jim had revealed, under torture, his plan to go north following an “underground railroad to Boston.”
Vigilance Committees were created to protect escaped slaves from bounty hunters in New York in 1835 and Philadelphia in 1838 — soon expanded their activities to guide slaves on the run.
By the 1840s, the term Underground Railroad was part of the American vernacular.
Most of the slaves helped by the Underground Railroad escaped border states such as Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland.
In the deep South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made capturing escaped slaves a lucrative business, and there were fewer hiding places for them. Fugitive slaves were typically on their own until they got to certain points farther north.
People known as “conductors” guided the fugitive slaves. Hiding places included private homes, churches and schoolhouses. These were called “stations,” “safe houses,” and “depots.” The people operating them were called “stationmasters.”
There were many well-used routes stretching west through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa. Others headed north through Pennsylvania and into New England or through Detroit on their way to Canada.
Fugitive Slave Acts
Many escapees headed for Canada because of the Fugitive Slave Acts. The first act, passed in 1793, allowed local governments to apprehend and extradite escaped slaves from within the borders of free states back to their point of origin, and to punish anyone helping the fugitives. Some Northern states tried to combat this with Personal Liberty Laws, which were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1842.
• 1851 LOUISIANA (“CROSS THAT RIVER”)
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was designed to strengthen the previous law, which was felt by southern states to be inadequately enforced. This update created harsher penalties and set up a system of commissioners that promoted favoritism towards slave owners and led to some freed slaves being recaptured. For an escaped slave, the northern states were still considered a risk.
Those who ran the Underground Railroad
Most Underground Railroad operators were ordinary people, farmers and business owners, as well as ministers. Some wealthy people were involved, such as Gerrit Smith, a millionaire who twice ran for president. In 1841, Smith purchased an entire family of slaves from Kentucky and set them free.
One of the earliest known people to help fugitive slaves was Levi Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina. He started around 1813 when he was 15 years old.
Coffin said that he learned of their hiding places, and sought them out to help them along. Eventually, they began to find him. Coffin later moved to Indiana, and then Ohio, continuing to help escaped slaves wherever he lived.
Former slave and famed writer Frederick Douglass hid fugitives in his home in Rochester, New York, helping 400 escaped slaves make their way to Canada. Former fugitive Reverend Jermain Loguen, who lived in neighboring Syracuse, helped 1,500 slaves go north.
Robert Purvis, an escaped slave turned Philadelphia merchant, formed the Vigilance Committee there in 1838. Former slave and railroad operator Josiah Henson created the Dawn Institute in 1842 in Ontario to help escaped slaves who made their way to Canada learn needed work skills.
New York City-based escaped slave Louis Napoleon’s occupation as listed on his death certificate was “Underground R.R. Agent.” He was a key figure guiding fugitives he found at the docks and train stations.
John Parker was a free black man in Ohio, a foundry owner who took a rowboat across the Ohio River to help fugitives cross. He was also known to make his way into Kentucky and enter plantations to help slaves escape.
William Still was a prominent Philadelphia citizen who had been born to fugitive slave parents in New Jersey. An associate of Tubman’s, Still also kept a record of his activities in the Underground Railroad and was able to keep it safely hidden until after the Civil War, when he published them, offering one of the clearest accounts of Underground Railroad activity at the time.
b/ Vivian Filer
Vivian Filer at The Hippodrome Theater (Gainesville, Fla.)
Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor for the Underground Railroad. Born a slave named Araminta Ross, she took the name Harriet when, in 1849, she escaped a plantation in Maryland with two of her brothers. They returned a couple of weeks later, but Harriet left again on her own shortly after, making her way to Pennsylvania.
[In 1844, 25-year-old Harriet Ross married John Tubman, a free African American who did not share her dream of traveling north.]
Harriet later returned to the plantation on several occasions to rescue family members and others. On her third trip, she tried to rescue her husband, but he had remarried and refused to leave.
Distraught, Tubman said she had seen God, after which she joined the Underground Railroad and began guiding other escaped slaves to Maryland. Tubman regularly took groups of escapees to Canada, distrusting the United States to treat them well.
Abolitionist John Brown was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, during which time he established the League of Gileadites, devoted to helping fugitive slaves get to Canada.
Brown would play many roles in the abolition movement, most famously leading a raid on Harper’s Ferry to create an armed force to make its way into the deep south and free slaves by gunpoint. Brown’s men were defeated, and Brown hanged for treason in 1859.
By 1837 Reverend Calvin Fairbank was helping slaves escape from Kentucky into Ohio. In 1844 he partnered with Vermont schoolteacher Delia Webster and was arrested for helping an escaped slave and her child. He was pardoned in 1849, but was arrested again and spent another 12 years in jail.
Charles Torrey was sent to prison for six years in Maryland for helping a slave family escape through Virginia. He operated out of Washington, D.C., and had previously worked as an abolitionist newspaper editor in Albany, New York.
Massachusetts sea captain Jonathan Walker was arrested in 1844 after he was caught with a boatload of escaped slaves that he was trying to help get north. Walker was fined and jailed for a year, and branded on his right hand the letters “SS” for Slave Stealer.
John Fairfield of Virginia rejected his slave-holding family to help rescue the left-behind families of slaves who made it north. Fairfield’s method was to travel in the south posing as a slave trader. He broke out of jail twice. He died in 1860 in Tennessee during a slave rebellion.
• 1961 MISSISSIPPI
“When the Spell is Broken”
b/ Blind Boys of Alabama with Bonnie Raitt
“The Bridge” is a continuation of the American Story Allan began to tell on his 2006 album, Cross That River. “Cross That River” is Allan Harris’ story of a Louisiana slave named Blue, who, in 1851, escapes across the Red River into Texas, where he works as a cowboy on a cattle drive to Oklahoma, and later joins the U.S. Army as a famed Buffalo Soldier.
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad
In 1849, following a bout of illness and the death of her owner, Harriet Tubman decided to escape slavery in Maryland for Philadelphia. She feared that her family would be further severed and was concerned for her own fate as a sickly slave of low economic value. Two of her brothers, Ben and Harry, accompanied her on September 17, 1849. However, after a notice was published in the Cambridge Democrat offering a $300 reward for the return of Araminta, Harry and Ben, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts and returned to the plantation. Harriet had no plans to remain in bondage. Seeing her brothers safely home, she soon set off alone for Pennsylvania.
Making use of the network known as the Underground Railroad, Tubman traveled nearly 90 miles to Philadelphia. She crossed into the free state of Pennsylvania with a feeling of relief and awe, and recalled later: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
Rather than remaining in the safety of the North, Tubman made it her mission to rescue her family and others living in slavery via the Underground Railroad. December 1850, Tubman received a warning that her niece Kessiah was going to be sold, along with her two young children. Kessiah’s husband, a free black man named John Bowley, made the winning bid for his wife at an auction in Baltimore. Harriet then helped the entire family make the journey to Philadelphia. This was the first of many trips by Tubman, who earned the nickname “Moses” for her leadership. Over time, she was able to guide her parents, several siblings and about 60 others to freedom.
The dynamics of escaping slavery changed in 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. This law stated that escaped slaves could be captured in the North and returned to slavery, leading to the abduction of former slaves and free blacks living in Free States. Law enforcement officials in the North were compelled to aid in the capture of slaves, regardless of their personal principles. In response to the law, Tubman re-routed the Underground Railroad to Canada, which prohibited slavery categorically.
December 1851, Tubman guided a group of 11 fugitives northward. There is evidence to suggest that the party stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.
In April 1858, Tubman was introduced to the abolitionist John Brown, who advocated the use of violence to disrupt and destroy the institution of slavery. Tubman shared Brown’s goals and at least tolerated his methods. Tubman claimed to have had a prophetic vision of Brown before they met. When Brown began recruiting supporters for an attack on slaveholders at Harper’s Ferry, he turned to “General Tubman” for help. After Brown’s subsequent execution, Tubman praised him as a martyr.
Harriet Tubman remained active during the Civil War. Working for the Union Army as a cook and nurse, Tubman quickly became an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.