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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Underground Railroad

One of the most controversial issues of the slave era was the right of slave owners to the return of runaway slaves who reached free States. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, approved by President Millard Fillmore on September 18, required all runaway slaves to be returned to their owners. A bounty for the return ensured that slave catchers would be aggressive in pursuit of profit. The law was part of the "Compromise of 1850" in which Members of Congress from the slave States and anti-slavery States agreed to measures that kept the southern States from attempting to secede from the Union.

The Underground Railroad, beginning in the 1820s, was an informal network of abolitionists who helped slaves reach Canada. Although the network employed railroad terminology (for example, "conductors" moved the runaway slaves from post to post, "stations" were safe locations where runaways could hide until the next stage of their journey could begin, and financial contributors were "stockholders"), transportation was largely along the Nation's primitive road network, on foot or in wagons, and mostly at night in 10-20 mile leaps. Along the East Coast, the railroad might include a journey north by ship.

Professor John Michael Vlach explained that the Underground Railroad grew into an established network:

The range of places and pathways used by fugitive slaves might suggest a random, haphazard effort, but all of these locations and routes did coalesce, over time, into a coherent network. This "upper-ground railroad" emerged incrementally through the collective experience of numerous runaways. Slaves, being ever watchful for anything they might use to improve their lives, routinely noted the places where they could hide themselves should they ever decide to escape. With the lure of freedom as a powerful motivation, they paid careful attention to reports of preferred trails they might follow and of possible places where they could find shelter . . . .

Runaway slaves did not just wander aimlessly, hoping to meet up with a charitable person who would help them. Rather, they knew a good deal about how to get away and how to survive on their own.

He referred to the Underground Railroad as a "multi-pronged attack on the system of chattel slavery carried out over a period of more than half a century." The courage of the runaway slaves is undercut, he states, by the historical emphasis on the "conductors" and "stages":

The Underground Railroad of popular legend casts blacks mainly as the passive "customers" who were fortunate enough to receive a "ticket" allowing them to ride on the "Liberty Line." [Vlack, John Michael, "Above Ground on the Underground Railroad," Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory , Blight, David W., ed., Smithsonian Books, 2004, p. 96-98]

Simply leaving the South was dangerous for conductors and slaves alike, but the northern part of the journey was equally dangerous, especially after enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act. Slave catchers roamed the northern States in search of runaways.

Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave from Maryland's Eastern Shore, earned a reputation as the Moses of the Underground Railroad. Having escaped her own enslavement in 1849, she returned to the South 20 times beginning in 1850 to guide more than 300 slaves to freedom. She initially returned to rescue family members, but gradually began to engineer mass escapes, guiding the fugitives along the "stations" to freedom. She often used disguises, appearing as an elderly woman on several occasions, or in other outfits as she traveled through the South.

In a biography of Tubman, Beverly Lowry described one of Tubman's trips:

The Underground Railroad was, as its name implies, a secret organization, a web of guerrilla fighters dedicated to the cause of freedom for the enslaved people of the South.

Fugitives were hidden in root cellars and attics. They were disguised and, in unfamiliar clothing, were taken from one safe house to the next by any means available, including boats, trains, wagons, carts, and of course on foot down secret paths and unmarked trails.

Reaching Philadelphia, they continued their journey:

However she travels, she is setting off into new territory, beyond Philadelphia, toward New York, and eventually across the Niagara River to present-day Ontario, which at that time was called Canada West.

Slave catchers are good at their job, and they are everywhere. They watch freight and passenger trains to the north with exceeding care, as do federal agents, who also hope to collect a bounty. Any black person boarding a northbound train will be searched and questioned. Most will be kidnapped and taken away.

But Harriet has made her arrangements with people who will hide all twelve of them safely along the route, sometimes in freight cars among hay bales and boxes of goods. There will be someone to meet her and her group when they arrive at the next stop, and the next.

In Rochester, they stay in the home of Frederick Douglass, who will not speak of their visit until long after emancipation, in 1881, when he writes:

On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me until I could collect sufficient money to get [them] on to Canada. It was the largest number I ever had at any one time, and I had some difficulty in providing so many with food and shelter, but as may well be imagined, they were not very fastidious in either direction, and were well content with very plain food, and a strip of carpet on the floor for a bed, or a place on the straw in the barn lot.

Having safely crossed the Niagara to gather under what she calls "the protection of the British lion's paw," the fugitives find their way to the nearby town of St. Catharines. There, in time, Harriet will rent a home located on North Street, in a district where black people have established a community.

Lowry added that:

Usually, on these longer trips, she "proceeded by steam railroad to New York, and from there she took the train to Albany," where she boarded a train for Rochester. There, Frederick Douglass often saw that she "got on the train for the Suspension Bridge and St. Catharines in Canada." [Lowry, Beverly, Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life , Doubleday, 2007, p. 169-170]

The number of slaves who reached Canada is impossible to know, but estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000. In Canada, they found freedom but were subject to the type of discrimination that would become common in the United States after the Civil War.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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