Underground Railroad

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Overview of the Underground Railroad
The UGGR in Northeastern Pennsylvania

What was the Underground Railroad?

Overview of the Underground Railroad

The “Underground Railroad” was a pseudonym for the movement of African American slaves escaping from the South to a loosely organized network of abolitionists who assisted them in their search for freedom in the north during the antebellum period. Runaways escaped using a network of routes through the southern border states. Those traveling east headed to such places as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Others fled to Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan. Some fugitives continued to Canada where slavery was outlawed, and where officials refused U. S. requests for their return.

While the Underground Railroad began sometime during the late eighteenth century after the abolition of slavery in the northern states, its greatest activity occurred between 1835 and 1865. To disguise their illegal activities, abolitionists who operated the route adopted the vocabulary of the railroad. Accordingly, the term “underground” suggested a “secret,” and “railroad,” a “method of transportation.” Those who opened their homes to runaways were referred to as “station masters,” and their homes, “stations.” Others, who guided fugitives between stations were called “conductors.” “Stockholders” played a less dangerous, and less conspicuous role, but one that was extremely important. They provided the finance needed for bribes, transportation, food, and clothing. “Agent” was a more generic term, referring to anyone who worked on the Underground Railroad.

Often the story is told in the context of a free North and a slaveholding South. It assumes that all abolitionists, black and white, were unified in their opposition to slavery, and credits them with the successful operation of the Underground Railroad. Fugitives, on the other hand, are generally depicted as helpless, frightened passengers who took advantage of a well-organized network. Free black involvement is frequently chronicled through the best-known conductors like Harriet Tubman, or orators such as Frederick Douglass. We are left with a mix of historical fact, enhanced by over 150 years of mythology, giving us accounts of anti-slavery solidarity and focusing on daring rescues, ingenious hiding place, and great escapes.

Because the Underground Railroad operated in secrecy and has few remaining records, many basic facts about its history are unknown. Nor one knows, for example, how many fugitives successfully fled from bondage along its invisible tracks. Nor is there any reliable source for the origins of the term “Underground Railroad,” being based largely on anecdotal information handed down across the generations. Much of the confusion stems from the lack of reliable sources. Many accounts were written years after the fact by white abolitionists, who tended to emphasize their own heroics and omit the contributions of others, most notably the free black community and the fugitives themselves. Often these accounts were further embellished and replicated in subsequent novels, plays, and historical monographs. These include R. C. Smedley’s History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and Neighboring Counties (1883), and Wilbur H. Seibert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898). The result was an overemphasis on white abolitionist involvement, particularly among Quakers, and an oversimplification of a complex historical phenomenon that involved many religious groups as well as free blacks and fugitives.

William Still’s Underground Railroad is a refreshing exception to less reliable accounts and continues to be widely considered by historians as the most accurate source on the topic. William Still, an African American man and chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Vigilance Committee, interviewed the fugitives who came under his protection. He recorded their personal histories: where they came from, who their masters were, how they escaped, why they escaped, and the dangers they encountered on their flight to freedom. Still carefully guarded the interviews until 1872 when he integrated his own observations with personal correspondence, excerpts from newspaper articles, minutes of anti-slavery meetings, and legal papers, and published them in an 800-page book.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Still credits white abolitionists, free black people, and fugitives with the success of the Underground Railroad. “As a general rule,” he wrote, “the passengers of the Underground Railroad were physically and intellectually above the average order of slaves and were determined to have liberty even at the cost of life.” Such fugitives as Henry “Box” Brown, who freighted himself to freedom in a wooden crate, and Ellen and William Craft, who ingeniously disguised themselves as a slave master and servant traveling by train and boat from the Deep South to Philadelphia, were not helpless individuals, but very capable, self-reliant people who took matters into their own hands and, in so doing, impressed Still. At the same time, Still acknowledged the “Christ-like exhibition of love and humanity” extended by white abolitionists such as Thomas Garrett, Lucretia Mott, and William Lloyd Garrison, “who served the anti-slavery cause in its darkest days.”