The Underground Railroad was a network of people, African American as well as white, offering shelter and aid to escaped enslaved people 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, at which point its efforts continued to undermine the Confederacy in a less-secretive fashion.
The Quakers are considered the first organized group to actively help escaped enslaved people. George Washington complained in 1786 that Quakers had attempted to “liberate” one of his enslaved workers.
In the early 1800s, Quaker abolitionist Isaac T. Hopper set up a network in Philadelphia that helped enslaved people 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 enslaved people.
What Was the Underground Railroad?
The earliest mention of the Underground Railroad came in 1831 when enslaved man 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 enslaved man named Jim had revealed, under torture, his plan to go north following an “underground railroad to Boston.”
Vigilance Committees—created to protect escaped enslaved people from bounty hunters in New York in 1835 and Philadelphia in 1838—soon expanded their activities to guide enslaved people on the run. By the 1840s, the term Underground Railroad was part of the American vernacular.
READ MORE: 6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad
How the Underground Railroad Worked
Most of the enslaved people 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 enslaved people a lucrative business, and there were fewer hiding places for them. Fugitive enslaved people were typically on their own until they got to certain points farther north.
People known as “conductors” guided the fugitive enslaved people. 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.
READ MORE: The Little-Known Underground Railroad That Ran South to Mexico
Fugitive Slave Acts
The reason many escapees headed for Canada was the Fugitive Slave Acts. The first act, passed in 1793, allowed local governments to apprehend and extradite escaped enslaved people 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.
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 owners of enslaved people and led to some formerly enslaved people being recaptured. For an escaped person, the northern states were still considered a risk.
Meanwhile, Canada offered Black people the freedom to live where they wanted, sit on juries, run for public office and more, and efforts at extradition had largely failed. Some Underground Railroad operators based themselves in Canada and worked to help the arriving fugitives settle in.
Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor for the Underground Railroad.
Born an enslaved woman named Araminta Ross, she took the name Harriet (Tubman was her married name) when, in 1849, she escaped a plantation in Maryland with two of her brothers. They returned a couple of weeks later, but Tubman left again on her own shortly after, making her way to Pennsylvania.
Tubman 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 reported a vision of 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.
Formerly enslaved person and famed writer Frederick Douglass hid fugitives in his home in Rochester, New York, helping 400 escapees make their way to Canada. Former fugitive Reverend Jermain Loguen, who lived in neighboring Syracuse, helped 1,500 escapees go north.
Robert Purvis, an escaped enslaved person turned Philadelphia merchant, formed the Vigilance Committee there in 1838. Former enslaved person and railroad operator Josiah Henson created the Dawn Institute in 1842 in Ontario to help escapees who made their way to Canada learn needed work skills.
New York City-based escapee 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 enslaved people escape.
William Still was a prominent Philadelphia citizen who had been born to fugitive enslaved 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.
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 enslaved people from Kentucky and set them free.
One of the earliest known people to help fugitive enslaved people was Levi Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina. He started around 1813 when he was 15 years old.
Coffin said that he learned their hiding places and sought them out to help them move along. Eventually, they began to find their way to him. Coffin later moved to Indiana and then Ohio, and continued to help escaped enslaved people wherever he lived.
Abolitionist John Brown was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, during which time he established the League of Gileadites, devoted to helping fugitive enslaved people 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 enslaved people by gunpoint. Brown’s men were defeated, and Brown hanged for treason in 1859.
By 1837 Reverend Calvin Fairbank was helping enslaved people escape from Kentucky into Ohio. In 1844 he partnered with Vermont schoolteacher Delia Webster and was arrested for helping an escaped enslaved woman 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 an enslaved 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 enslaved people 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 enslaved people 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 rebellion.
End of the Line
The Underground Railroad ceased operations about 1863, during the Civil War. In reality, its work moved aboveground as part of the Union effort against the Confederacy.
Harriet Tubman once again played a significant part by leading intelligence operations and fulfilling a command role in Union Army operations to rescue the emancipated enslaved people.
READ MORE: After the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman Led a Brazen Civil War Raid
Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad. Fergus Bordewich.
Harriet Tubman: The Road To Freedom. Catherine Clinton.
Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad? Henry Louis Gates.
The Little Known History of the Underground Railroad in New York. Smithsonian Magazine.
The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad. The New Yorker.
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Underground Railroad, in the United States, a system existing in the Northern states before the Civil War by which escaped slaves from the South were secretly helped by sympathetic Northerners, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Acts, to reach places of safety in the North or in Canada. Though neither underground nor a railroad, it was thus named because its activities had to be carried out in secret, using darkness or disguise, and because railway terms were used in reference to the conduct of the system. Various routes were lines, stopping places were called stations, those who aided along the way were conductors, and their charges were known as packages or freight. The network of routes extended in all directions throughout 14 Northern states and “the promised land” of Canada, which was beyond the reach of fugitive-slave hunters. Those who most actively assisted slaves to escape by way of the “railroad” were members of the free black community (including such former slaves as Harriet Tubman), Northern abolitionists, philanthropists, and such church leaders as Quaker Thomas Garrett. Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous for her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, gained firsthand knowledge of fugitive slaves through her contact with the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Estimates of the number of black people who reached freedom vary greatly, from 40,000 to 100,000. Although only a small minority of Northerners participated in the Underground Railroad, its existence did much to arouse Northern sympathy for the lot of the slave in the antebellum period, at the same time convincing many Southerners that the North as a whole would never peaceably allow the institution of slavery to remain unchallenged.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.
The Underground Railroad
Let’s start with the Railroad itself.
It’s common knowledge that the real-life Underground Railroad was a network of white and BIPOC abolitionists — some of whom had been previously enslaved themselves — who worked to smuggle runaways from Southern plantations to free states, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Canada. The Railroad’s conductors would hide Black fugitives in “stations” — homes, churches, and businesses — and covertly transport them to the next station as time and safety allowed.
The world’s first subway system, London’s Metropolitan Railway, opened its gates in 1863 — the same year the U.S. Underground Railroad stopped working in secret, and began operating instead as part of the Union war effort. Whitehead’s novel plays with this timeline, turning the real-life Underground Railroad into a literal subway system with routes that connect the southernmost U.S. states to Canada.
Like the real abolitionist network, The Underground Railroad’s eponymous railway operates in secret — away from the watchful eyes of slave catchers. And for its conductors and passengers, Whitehead’s Railroad is just as dangerous for Cora and her friends as the real-life routes were for enslaved people and those who helped them escape.
Amazon’s ‘Underground Railroad’ teaches the Black history we do not know well enough
Drama is a laboratory of human nature, a realm where writers and actors can safely explore the further reaches of behavior and its implications, and audiences can experience the catharsis of their thought experiments. What if an aging king divided his inheritance among children of varying loyalty, only to set off an apocalyptic war of all against all? What if a New Jersey mafioso struggled unsuccessfully to keep his family and his business separate? What if a mother felt driven to kill her own children out of jealousy over her husband’s infidelity?
When a fictional work deals with a historic crime, though, the space of drama isn’t quite so safe, and the range of its imagination is more circumscribed by horror. To tell stories about the Holocaust, say, or about slavery in America, is to play with live ammunition—with events so egregious and weighty, with consequences that still resonate powerfully among the living, that there is even a question about whether such subjects ought to be dramatized at all.
‘Undergound Railroad’ executes a breathtaking high-wire act, threading speculative fiction a history most of us still do not know well enough.
This question throbs urgently throughout “The Underground Railroad,” a stirring, gorgeous, harrowing new Amazon Prime miniseries from the director Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”), adapted from Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed 2016 novel. For in tracing the odyssey of a runaway slave, Cora, from a plantation in Georgia to a seemingly idyllic, Black-run farm in Indiana, the series executes a breathtaking high-wire act, boldly threading speculative fiction bordering on sci-fi into a history most of us still do not know well enough. The result is a vibrant, truer-than-fiction American mythology, a remix that surpasses the original tune.
To give away the novel and the show’s biggest gambit, revealed startlingly at the end of the first of its 10 episodes: Whitehead’s novel reimagines his title image as a literal underground railroad, with engineers and dining cars, rolling undetected under the Southern states, and accessible via secret passageways under trap doors. As in real life, it is facilitated with the clandestine support of a network of sympathetic white folks, but it was built and run by, and on behalf of, enslaved Black people.
To tell stories about the Holocaust, say, or about slavery in America, is to play with live ammunition.
The “Twilight Zone”-esque fictions do not stop there: The first place that Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and her partner in escape, Caesar (Aaron Pierre), come to is a South Carolina town in which formerly enslaved people are dressed, educated and entertained exquisitely by zealous white do-gooders, who turn out to have horrifying eugenic aims. Cora’s next stop is the purportedly all-white republic of North Carolina, in which a theocratic regime has enacted a statewide ban on all Black people, even enslaved ones, ritually murdering any it finds and stringing up their white enablers.
These and other poetically exaggerated scenarios seize the what-if imperative of drama to illuminate resonant truths about Black life in America, from the slavery era up to the present: for instance, the way the scourge of white paternalism is as toxic to Black flourishing as outright hostility. Later Indiana chapters illustrate how segregation and separatism can at best only throw a thin veil over the scourge of racism, with the implicit threat of violence ever present.
Magic realism doesn’t often ground itself so firmly in the realism side of the equation.
The central relationship of “The Underground Railroad,” surprisingly, is not between Cora and the beautiful, sad-eyed Caesar, or with a later paramour, the sober and heartful Royal (William Jackson Harper). It is instead her long, multi-state entanglement with Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a slave catcher possessed of both preternatural bloodhound instincts and a florid, self-justifying rationale of manifest destiny and the white man’s burden. Ridgeway pursues and intermittently catches Cora and haunts her nightmares, and he likewise dreams of her. There is even a striking moment where an image of Ridgeway’s face dissolves slowly to Cora’s, superimposing their visages and suggesting a terrible spiritual kinship.
This is on one level a typical cat-and-mouse trope, in which the hunter and the hunted are yoked together by their journey on a common path. It is also something more: Ridgeway represents Cora’s key experience with white America, which wants her either captive or dead. It is remarkable how much suspense, dread and complicated emotions the series generates between this unevenly matched pair, and the resolute Mbedu and sneakily low-key Edgerton are almost unbearably good in these roles.
Indeed, it is amazing that Jenkins makes some of the material of “The Underground Railroad” watchable at all. Magic realism doesn’t often ground itself so firmly in the realism side of the equation, as it does here, with results as invigorating as they are unsettling. Working with the cinematographer James Laxton and the composer Nicholas Britell, both of whom worked with him on “Moonlight,” Jenkins conjures a sun-drenched South teeming with trilling insects and lurking terrors, and a North of rolling greenery and hidden pitfalls. Moving at a pace and scale that feels more cinematic than TV-episodic, Jenkins is as unafraid to linger on moments of contemplation and equivocation as he is unflinching in depicting the depredations of slavery and white supremacist violence.
28c. The Underground Railroad
Any cause needs speakers and organizers. Any mass movement requires men and women of great ideas.
But information and mobilization are not enough. To be successful, revolutionary change requires people of action &mdash those who little by little chip away at the forces who stand in the way. Such were the "conductors" of the Underground Railroad . Not content to wait for laws to change or for slavery to implode itself, railroad activists helped individual fugitive slaves find the light of freedom.
Harriet Tubman is sometimes referred to as the Moses of her people because of the way she led them out of slavery.
The Underground Railroad operated at night. Slaves were moved from "station" to "station" by abolitionists. These "stations" were usually homes and churches &mdash any safe place to rest and eat before continuing on the journey to freedom, as faraway as Canada. Often whites would pretend to be the masters of the fugitives to avoid capture. Sometimes lighter skinned African Americans took this role. In one spectacular case, Henry "Box" Brown arranged for a friend to put him in a wooden box, where he had only a few biscuits and some water. His friend mailed him to the North, where bemused abolitionists received him in Philadelphia.
This map of the eastern United States shows some of the routes that slaves traveled during their escape to freedom.
Most of the time, however, slaves crept northward on their own, looking for the signal that designated the next safe haven. This was indeed risky business, because slave catchers and sheriffs were constantly on the lookout. Over 3,200 people are known to have worked on the railroad between 1830 and the end of the Civil War. Many will remain forever anonymous.
Perhaps the most outstanding "conductor" of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman . Born a slave herself, she began working on the railroad to free her family members. During the 1850s, Tubman made 19 separate trips into slave territory. She was terribly serious about her mission. Any slave who had second thoughts she threatened to shoot with the pistol she carried on her hip. By the end of the decade, she was responsible for freeing about 300 slaves. When the Civil War broke out, she used her knowledge from working the railroad to serve as a spy for the Union.
Needless to say, the Underground Railroad was not appreciated by the slaveowners. Although they disliked Abolitionist talk and literature, this was far worse. To them, this was a simple case of stolen property. When Northern towns rallied around freed slaves and refused compensation, yet another brick was set into the foundation of Southern secession .
The Little-Known History of the Underground Railroad in New York
New York City wasn’t always the liberal Yankee bastion it is today. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the city was strongly pro-slavery and anything but a hotbed of abolitionism. The city’s banking and shipping interests were closely tied to the cotton and sugar trades, industries that relied on slave labor. Any change in the status quo, such as the abolition of slavery, would significantly damage the forces that made New York the financial capital of the United States. But even then, the Underground Railroad, the network of secret safe houses and getaway routes used by fugitive slaves seeking freedom in the North, operated through the city. Fredrick Douglass and thousands of others escaped via what was even then the most populous city in the nation.
The true nature of the Underground Railroad’s breadth in New York, however, has been largely unknown because of the city’s anti-abolitionist fervor. “While there is a lot out there on the Underground Railroad, very little has been done about New York City,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, a professor at Columbia University. “This was pretty much a pro-Southern town and the Underground Railroad was operating in much greater secrecy than in many other parts of the North, so it was a lot harder to ferret out.”
Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
The dramatic story of fugitive slaves and the antislavery activists who defied the law to help them reach freedom. More than any other scholar, Eric Foner has influenced our understanding of America's history. Now, making brilliant use of extraordinary evidence, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian once again reconfigures the national saga of American slavery and freedom.
As Foner details in his new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, New York was a crucial way station from the Upper South through Pennsylvania and onward to upstate New York, New England and Canada. Between 1830 and 1860, a handful of New Yorkers, black and white, helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves make their way out of bondage. Their story forms a chapter of resistance to slavery that has, until now, received relatively sparse attention from historians.
The book draws on a “very remarkable and unusual document” that had been gathering dust in Columbia’s manuscript archives for more than a century. The Record of Fugitives, compiled by New York City abolitionist newspaperman Sydney Howard Gay, was unknown to scholars until a student tipped off Foner to its existence. As he began to comb through it, he discovered a meticulous accounting of the movements of more than 200 fugitive slaves who passed through the city in the 1850s.
The Record speaks of fugitives long forgotten “such as James Jones of Alexandria who, Gay recorded, ‘had not been treated badly, but was tired of being a slave.’“ But he was an exception, according to interviews Gay and his colleagues conducted. As Foner relates, many fugitives cited physical abuse as much as a desire for freedom as the reason they ran away, using words like “great violence,” “badly treated,” “ruff times,” and “hard master” in their complaints.
John Jay II, the grandson of the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, also appears in the Record. By the late 1840s, he had emerged as the city’s leading lawyer in fugitive slave cases, frequently providing his services free of charge, “at great risk to his social and professional standing,” as Gay wrote.
The book includes accounts of escapes aided by the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, but also by a little-known and strikingly named man whose death certificate decades later would list his occupation as, “Underground R.R. Agent.”
Louis Napoleon was an illiterate African-American furniture polisher and porter who may have been born a slave in New York or Virginia. He appears on the very first page of the Record taking a fugitive to the train station. His name later turns up in letters, writs of habeas corpus and in some of the most important court cases arising out of the contentious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
Napoleon lived around the corner from Gay’s office in lower Manhattan, not far from the ferry terminal where passengers from Philadelphia and points farther south disembarked. He was, Foner said, “the key guy on the streets in New York bringing in fugitives, scouring the docks, looking for people at the train station.” As the Brooklyn Eagle would observe in 1875 of the then elderly man, “few would have suspected … that he had ever been the rescuer of 3,000 persons from bondage.”
The author, who used the Record as a jumping off point to delve deeper into New York’s fugitive slave network, also traces the origins of the New York Vigilance Committee, a tiny group of white abolitionists and free blacks that started in 1835 and would form the core of the city’s underground network until the eve of the Civil War.
“Over the course of its life,” Foner wrote, “it propelled the plight of fugitives to the forefront of abolitionist consciousness in New York and won support from many outside the movement’s ranks. It forced the interconnected issues of kidnapping and fugitive slaves into the larger public sphere.”
Gateway to Freedom brings to two dozen the number of books Foner has written on antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction America. His previous book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize.
I spoke to Eric Foner about New York’s hidden role in the Underground Railroad.
How did this book come about?
This is an unusual book for me. This started with this one document, the Record of Fugitives, which was serendipitously pointed out to me by a student at Columbia who was doing a senior thesis on Sydney Howard Gay and his journalistic career. She was in the manuscript library at Columbia and said there’s this thing about fugitive slaves and I’m not sure what it is but you might find it interesting. So I kind of filed it in the back of my mind. It was virtually unknown because it was not catalogued in any way. You had to know it was there to find it.
What was New York like during this time?
The prosperity of New York City in the half-century before the Civil War was closely tied to slavery and the cotton South. This was a city whose merchants basically controlled the cotton trade, and had very close ties with cotton plantation owners. Many of the jobs on the docks were connected to this. The shipbuilding industry, insurance companies, the banks who helped to finance slavery. Southerners were here all the time. They came to do business, they came up for vacation. Lincoln never carried New York City either time he ran for president. Now, of course, there was a free black community and there was this quite small band of abolitionists, but it was a very difficult environment for them to work in.
Was there one Underground Railroad or many?
There were routes in Ohio, Kentucky. This was one major set of routes I call the metropolitan corridor because it went from city to city up the East Coast. It was one of a series of networks that assisted a good number of fugitives. Nobody knows how many.
One shouldn’t think of the Underground Railroad as a set group of routes. People thought, ‘Oh you could make a map. Here’s where they went.’ It was not quite so organized as sometimes we think. It was not like there was a series of stations and people would just go from one to another. It was more haphazard. It was more disorganized -- or less organized, anyway. But there were these little networks of people who were in contact with each other and would assist fugitives. And once they got further north to Albany, Syracuse, then they were in the real anti-slavery territory and it became very much more open. It was totally public and nobody seemed to do anything about it. People advertised in the newspaper about helping fugitive slaves. That was a very different environment than New York City.
How did fugitive slaves get to New York?
‘Underground Railroad’ should be taken somewhat literally, toward the end anyway. We tend to think of runaway slaves as running through woods and of course that happened but from the 1840s and s, many of them came to New York by railroad. Frederick Douglas just got on a train in Baltimore and got to New York.
A lot got to New York by boat. Ship captains took money from slaves to hide them out and bring them to the North. There were a lot of blacks working on vessels at that time.
The book also looks at the larger impact fugitive slaves had on national politics.
Most of these fugitives who ran away are anonymous but they helped to place the slavery question on the national agenda. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was a very draconian law that aroused a lot of opposition in the North. Local action, local resistance actually reverberated way up to the national level. So that’s another thing I wanted to emphasize -- not just the stories of these people but the way that their actions actually had a big effect on national politics and the coming of the Civil War.
About Andrea Stone
Andrea Stone has covered national news, politics and foreign affairs for USA TODAY and other large media outlets, for more than three decades. She is now a freelance writer.
Wisconsin's best-known fugitive slave incident was the rescue of Joshua Glover on March 11, 1854, from the Milwaukee jail. Glover escaped from his enslaver and fled Missouri in 1852. He made his way to Racine, where his master found him two years later. Arrested under the federal Fugitive Slave Act, Glover was taken to the Milwaukee jail but a crowd of anti-slavery demonstrators smashed down the doors and rescued him the next day. Glover, like Quarlls, was initially hidden in Waukesha until he secretly boarded a steamer in Racine and escaped to Canada. Waukesha editor Chauncey Olin was also involved in the Glover incident, and recalls the events in his memoir. Also available in Turning Points is the advertisement that Glover's owner placed after he ran away in 1852 and an article that his pursuers published in 1854 that explains why they think it's justifiable to capture him. Other documents from the Glover case include a picture of him, a poster advertising an anti-slavery rally, and the memoir of the immigrant bricklayer who actually seized a nearby beam and helped smash in the doors of the jail.
1852 reward advertisement for Glover
A bricklayer recalls storming the Milwaukee jail
The viewpoint of Glover's owner
An 1854 broadside announcing an abolitionist rally
The Little Known History of Texas’ Underground Railroad
H undreds of Underground Railroad historical markers span the United States, conjuring images of covert escape routes, shrewd conductors, and clandestine connections. Such high-stakes adventure tales grip the American imagination, inspiring books and movies about antebellum liberty pursued and denied, borders permeated and fortified, identities shed and remade.
But Texas is seldom mentioned in this sweeping narrative of Black pursuits of freedom. The state’s landscape is bare of monuments to resistance and flight, of the names or narratives of enslaved people who liberated themselves or died trying. When Texans think of emancipation, Juneteenth is more likely to come to mind—the holiday commemorating the 1865 date when Union soldiers landed in Galveston and announced emancipation.
Yet, “the story of freedom in Texas is bigger than Juneteenth, and it started well before June 19, 1865,” says Daina Ramey Berry, chair of the University of Texas at Austin History Department and author of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. “It’s in the stories of self-liberated enslaved people who were finding ways to get to Mexico, finding ways to get on boats and get to the Caribbean, finding ways to escape and go farther west.”
Racing across unforgiving country, fugitives from slavery faced a gauntlet of wilderness, slave hunters, and lawmen.
Historians are still unearthing tragic and triumphant tales of Texas freedom seekers, but it’s clear the Underground Railroad’s reputation for coordinated networks of abolitionists hiding people in barns doesn’t square with the historical reality in Texas. Racing south across unforgiving country, runaways—often armed and on horseback—faced daunting odds in a gauntlet of wilderness, slave hunters, and lawmen. “We need to figure out what the Texas story of the Underground Railroad was and maybe come up with a new term or a new label to describe the movement for freedom in the Lone Star State,” Berry says.
Why was the Underground Railroad important?
Owning humans was legal in America until 1865, 100 years after the nation was founded based on principles of freedom and equality. Africans were enslaved by Europeans and subjected to the Triangular Trade, where traders transported captives from Africa to the Americas and Europe. African slaves were forced to live on their owner’s land to farm or provide other services like weaving, cleaning, and masonry without compensation or the option to leave. The industry of slavery continued for hundreds of years and set the framework of the American economy and social order. This was the basis of what many call “the war against thy own neighbor”, the Civil War. The Underground Railroad was created as a way to help slaves escape the horror of their conditions in the south and escape to freedom in the northern U.S. and Canada.
What time period does The Underground Railroad cover?Caesar (Aaron Pierre) and Cora (Thuso Mbedu) think they've found a safe haven in South Carolina, but a belief in white supremacy belies their new acquaintances' actions. (Kyle Kaplan / Amazon Studios)
The Underground Railroad takes place around 1850, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act’s passage. It makes explicit mention of the draconian legislation, which sought to ensnare runaways who’d settled in free states and inflict harsh punishments on those who assisted escapees. Designed to discourage the Underground Railroad, the act instead galvanized—and radicalized—the abolitionist movement, according to Foner and Sinha. As one white character snidely remarks, the law “says we have to hand over runaways and not impede their capture—not drop everything we’re doing just because some slave catcher thinks he’s onto his bounty.”
While Whitehead used 1850 as a “sort of mental cutoff for technology and slang,” per NPR, he was less concerned with chronology than conveying a sense of the lived experience of Black Americans. “The book is rebooting every time the person goes to a different state,” the author explained. “[This approach] allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850—skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization.”
Cora’s journey to freedom is laden with implicit references to touchstones in post-emancipation history, from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the mid-20th century to white mobs’ attacks on prosperous Black communities like Wilmington, North Carolina (targeted in 1898), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (razed in 1921). This “chronological jumble,” says Spencer Crew, former president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and emeritus director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, serves as a reminder that the “end of slavery does not bring about the end of racism and racial attacks. … These issues continue to survive in different forms, with parallel impacts upon the African American community.”
Summary: Points to Remember
We have to guard against the attractions of "feel good history." We want to believe that our nation and our ancestors were good and just people. That the United States, the country that declared in 1776 that "all men are created equal" also embraced human slavery is a cause for unease and perhaps a little guilt. In some of the older popular history, one gets the impression that everyone north of the Mason-Dixon Line was anti-slavery and that aiding fugitives was a popular activity. In effect we are saying that we don't have to feel uneasy about the history of slavery because our ancestors helped the fugitives. Just look at all the tunnels. Increasingly, the story of the Underground Railroad is being placed back into its primary context of African-American history. Where Levi Coffin, a white Quaker, was at one time seen as the great figure in the story, we are now more likely to begin by talking about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. I'm afraid that we may be replacing some of the old "white people feel good" history where white people are the heroes with a new mythology where every African-American was an Underground Railroad agent and every AME Church was a station. Perhaps, but we need proof, not just assumptions and wishful thinking. We very much need more research into African-American involvement as agents and station masters on the Underground Railroad.
Did all Quakers participate in the Underground Railroad? There is no official statement from a Quaker body that this was expected. But Quakers rejected the legitimacy of slavery--it was not simply wrong, it was illegitimate and no Federal law could make it right. My judgment on the matter is that any fugitive who had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and appealed to a Quaker for assistance was either aided or directed to someone who could supply that assistance.
We often treat the story of the Underground Railroad as a story for children--particularly popular in our grade schools during Black History Month. We tend to focus on the heroism of those who broke the law to do the right thing. I am comfortable with the assertion that there are times when manifest religious duty requires people to follow the law of God rather than the law of men. However, the decision, particularly in a democratic society, to break the law is not something to be taken lightly. And if there has been good done in the service of religious ideals, there have also been great crimes done in the name of God.
Some Quakers participated in loosely organized Underground Railroad networks. A few made the Underground Railroad their life's work. Others may have been willing to aid a fugitive, but the opportunity to do so seldom or never arose. Some abolitionists, including some Quaker abolitionists, felt as a matter of tactics that efforts to end slavery as a system, freeing millions, was better than providing assistance to the handful of people who freed themselves by escape. These too were likely to aid the individual escaping, but remained apart from the Underground Railroad system.
Not all Quakers, and probably a minority of Quakers, participated in the organized anti-slavery movement. Some feared that too much association with the "world's people" would compromise Quaker testimonies others felt that the tactics of some in the anti-slavery movement hindered rather than aided the work of emancipation. This is true. It is equally true that Quakers were represented in the organized anti-slavery movement far in excess of their proportion of the population at large.
But whatever Quakers did for the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad they did not do it alone. In the Underground Railroad, it was the enslaved, the freedom seekers, who took the initiative and took most of the risk. There was far more assistance to freedom seekers in African-American communities of support than has generally been acknowledged. We need to see the Underground Railroad not as safe houses and tunnels, but as support networks of people. Those networks cut across regions, across religions and across races. The Underground Railroad was a great work of moral imagination--when we remembered those in bonds, as bound with them (Hebrews 13: 3). The dungeon shook and the bonds fell off.