The Underground Railroad was a hidden system designed to aid fugitive slaves on their escape to freedom. Involvement with the Underground Railroad was not only risky, but it was also unlawful. So, to assist safeguard themselves and their purpose secret codes were devised. The phrase Underground Railroad referred to the overall system, which consisted of multiple paths called lines. The free individuals who aided runaway slaves move toward freedom were termed conductors, while the fugitive slaves were referred to as cargo. The safe houses utilized as hiding places along the lines of the Underground Railroad were termed stations. A bright lantern hung outside would indicate these stations.
The Underground Railroad is a vital part of our nation’s history; unfortunately, many of the fascinating and lesser known information regarding it are not mentioned inside many textbooks. This ebook will provide a look into the past through a range of original materials regarding the Underground Railroad. These original sources consist of broadsides, reward posters, newspaper clippings, historical documents, sheet music, pictures and narratives connected to the Underground Railroad. These objects are found among the digital collections of the Library of Congress.
A Dangerous Path to Freedom
Traveling through the Underground Railroad was a long a risky trek for escaped slaves to attain their freedom. Runaway slaves had to travel great distances, many times on foot, in a short amount of time. They did this with little or no food and no protection from the slave catchers chasing them. Slave owners were not the only pursuers of escaped slaves. In order to persuade others to aid in the capture of these slaves, their owners would post reward posters offering payment for the capture of their property. If they were detected, any number of horrific things may happen to them. Many captured fleeing slaves were whipped, branded, incarcerated, sold back into slavery, or even killed.
Not only did fugitive slaves have the fear of starvation and capture, but there were other hazards offered by their environment. While journeying for long periods of time in the wilderness, they would have to battle off animals trying to kill and eat them, cross dangerous terrain, and survive terrible temperatures. For the slaves moving north on the Underground Railroad, they were still in danger as they entered northern states. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 facilitated and encouraged the capture of fugitive slaves due to the fact that they were considered as stolen property, rather than abused human beings.
Unfortunately, not all fleeing slaves made it to freedom. But, many of those who did manage to escape went on to relate their stories of flight from slavery and to help other slaves not yet free. Harriet Tubman, Henry Bibb, Anthony Burns, Addison White, Josiah Henson and John Parker all escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.
Henry “Box” Brown, another fugitive slave, fled in a somewhat different fashion. He shipped himself in a three foot long by two and a half foot deep by two foot wide box, from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he was freed from the crate, he came out singing.
Conductors & Abolitionists
Underground Railroad conductors were free individuals who helped fugitive slaves traveling via the Underground Railroad. Conductors protected fugitive slaves by providing them with safe passage to and from stations. They accomplished this under the cover of night with slave catchers hot on their heels. Many times these stations would be located within their own houses and businesses. The act of hiding fleeing slaves put these conductors in terrible risk; however, they persisted because they believed in a cause higher than themselves, which was the emancipation of thousands of enslaved human beings.
These conductors were formed of a broad collection of people. They featured people of different races, jobs and income levels. There were also former slaves who had escaped using the Underground Railroad and voluntarily returned to the areas of slavery, as conductors, to help free others still oppressed. Slaves were thought to be property; consequently, the freeing of slaves was viewed as taking slave owners’ personal property. If a conductor was detected helping free slaves they might be fined, imprisoned, branded, or possibly hung.
Harriet Tubman, possibly the most well-known conductor of the Underground Railroad, helped hundreds of escaped slaves escape to freedom. She never lost one of them along the way. As an escaped slave herself, she was escorted through the Underground Railroad by another legendary conductor…William Still. He went on the write The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters…, a book which contains descriptions of fugitive slaves’ escape to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. John parker is yet another former slave who escaped and ventured back into slave states to help free others. He conducted one of the busiest sections of the Underground Railroad, transporting escaped slaves over the Ohio River. His neighbor and fellow conductor, Reverend John Rankin, worked with him on the Underground Railroad. Both of their residences operated as Underground Railroad stations.
Efforts of Abolitionists Telling Their Story: Fugitive Slave Narratives
Henry Bibb was born into slavery, in Kentucky during the year of 1815. He made several futile attempts to escape slavery; nonetheless, he still had the strength and determination to continue in his fight for freedom after every capture and punishment. His tenacity paid off when he made a successful and greatly anticipated escape to the northern states and then on to Canada with the support of the Underground Railroad. The following is an excerpt from his tale in which he detailed one of his many escapes and the hurdles he had to face.