The Underground Railroad - A Road to Freedom
The Reality of Slavery
I was 9 years old when I first learned about slavery and it seemed impossible to me, a story from a book, an adventure. It was black history month and the teachers in our little elementary school had arranged to take us on that adventure...we were going to be slaves today.
We were told to play until we were taken one by one to the "ship" where we lay on the ground pretending we were tied together. It was fun at first, but they kept adding more and more kids until we were squished in like sardines. We lay there while the facts washed over us, our imaginations vivid; the ship was rocking in the storm, the air heavy and humid from so much breath, the smell of vomit and death...someone asked to go to the bathroom. Where did the slaves go, the teacher asked. We were silent with unwanted knowledge.
Next we were sold, brought up on the stage one by one or in groups, auctioned off, separated from our friends and in our minds our mothers. In those hours the horror of what we as a nation did was burned into me...I was ashamed for my white race, for my country.
But the next day we learned about the Underground Railroad and my childish faith in humanity was restored; there were good people, brave people. I imagined myself a fearless conductor leading the fugitives through swamps and forests hiding in the shadows and in plain sight. Or maybe a stationmaster waiting to comfort the escaped slave with food and rest in a secret room.
I went through a bit of an Underground Railroad phase after that month, reading all about Harriet Tubman, the Quakers, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the abolitionists. I am still grateful to those eccentric teachers for that experience, for through it I understood the horror of slavery and it's effect on my culture much more clearly then I ever could have from a simple lecture.
Codes Words and Warnings
- Freedom Train or Gospel Train: Code name for the Underground Railroad
- The wind blows from the South today: Warning of bounty hunters nearby
- When the sun comes back and the first quail calls: Early spring
- Moses: Harriet Tubman
- Baggage or Freight: Fugitive slaves
- Preachers: Leaders and speakers of the Railroad
- Shepherds and Conductors: Those who escorted the slaves
- Station: Place of refuge or a safe house
- Station Master: Keeper of a safe house
- Stockholder: Donor of money, clothing, or food
- A friend with friends: Signal of Conductor's arrival with fugitives
- Load of potatoes, parcel, or bundles of wood: Fugitives to be expected
- The friend of a friend sent me: Lone slaves indicating they were sent by the Railroad
Brief History of the Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was a secret network of roads and people who aided escaped slaves in reaching freedom from the late 1700's through the 1860s. Since slave owners could claim escaped slaves as stolen property the owners produced bounty notices for missing slaves with cash rewards for their return, often purposely keeping their descriptions vague so that if the wrong slave was returned they could still keep him as theirs.
The pressure from the slave hunters, and everyday people seeking these rewards forced the abolitionists aiding escaped slaves to be extremely careful. They developed a code; escape routes were called lines, safe houses called stations, helpers were conductors and the fugitives were known as packages or freight.
The estimates of how many slaves escaped through the Underground Railroad vary widely, and there is really no way to verify them. But to me the fact that it existed, that people took a stand to aid each other at risk to their own lives and livelihood is what makes the railroad inspiring.
Codes for Directions and Places
- The river ends between two hills: Visual directions to the Ohio River
- The River Jordan: The Mississippi River
- Heaven or Promised Land: Canada
- Drinking Gourd: The North Star
- The dead trees will show you the way: A reminder that moss grows only on the north side of fallen trees. Directions for when the north star was obscured.
- The river bank makes a mighty good road: Walk in the river so dogs can't track the scent.
The Process of Escaping
The first step towards freedom was to escape the slaveholder. Sometimes a "conductor," posing as a slave, would enter the plantation and guide the runaways northward but for the most part the slaves had to make the escape on their own.
Since the system relied mainly on word of mouth the success of a fugitive depended heavily on scraps of information, timing, resourcefulness and luck in finding the right people. Once they were "on the railroad" the fugitives would move at night travelling between 10 and 20 miles to the next station, where they would rest and eat, while a message was sent on to the next station to alert them of a new groups impending arrival.
"There are two things I had a right to - liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other for no man should take me alive." -- Harriet Tubman
Arguably the most famous member of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. Altogether Tubman conducted 19 trips out of the South, wading through rivers, hiding in swamps and evading slave hunters. In ten years she led 300 people to freedom, becoming known as "Moses" and incurring a $40,000 bounty on her head from the slave owners.
Levi and Catharine Coffin
Born and raised in the slave state of North Carolina, the Coffin's were Quakers, adament abolitionists and station masters on the Underground Railroad. During the 20 years they lived in Newport, Indiana the Coffins helped more than 2,000 slaves reach safety earning Levi the nickaname "President of the Underground Railroad."
Among the slaves passing through the Coffin's home was a nameless woman who carried her infant across the broken ice of the Ohio River while pursued by bloodhounds. She was the inspiration for the character Eliza Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin".
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
In September of 1850 Congress passed a package of five bills meant to appease the growing tensions between the North and the South, tensions that soon after erupted into Civil War. One of these was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 nicknamed the "Bloodhound Law" which declared that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters regardless of whether they were caught in a free state.
The law was further enforced by a fine of $1,000 for any official or Marshall who did not arrest a suspected runaway. The same fine applied to any person aiding, feeding or sheltering said slave.
Since arrested slaves were not allowed trials, many free men were sent to slavery along with fugitives who had been living in free northern states for years.
Thankfully, the law was immediately fought. Just two months after it passed through Congress, the state of Vermont passed it's own law requiring judges and officials to aid arrested slaves, making the Slave Act unenforceable. Four years later the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional and it was meet with neutralizing legislation by Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maine and Kansas but was still not officially repealed by Congress until June 28, 1864.
The Never Ending Saga of Slavery
Though the face of slavery has changed in the last 150 years it is still a problem, in the United States and the world. Last year an FBI report estimated that nearly 300,000 children in the US are at risk for being used or sold for sex. Add to that the exploitation and forced labor of immigrants and you end up with a world where between 12 - 27 million people are in some form of slavery. So where is the modern underground railroad?