THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD occupies a romantic place in the American imagination that is shared by few other episodes in the country’s history. The term is so instantly recognizable that today it is automatically applied to clandestine routes of travel almost everywhere, whether we’re talking about downed Allied airmen escaping from Nazi-held France, or North Korean refugees trying to make their way to China or Japan.
The Underground Railroad has bred mythology like no other phenomenon in American history. People in almost any town in the Northern states have heard about some old house, or tunnel, or hidey-hole in which fugitive slaves were supposedly sheltered.
The vast majority of these have no documentable connection with the Underground Railroad; it’s clear from abundant references in period literature that fugitives—when they needed to be hidden at all—were usually sent simply to upstairs bedrooms, basements, barns, cornfields, or nearby woods. Nor is there substance to the most recent addition to the underground legend: the alleged use of coded quilts which fugitives supposedly followed to freedom. (Those interested in this particular myth may read Leigh Fellner’s debunking article “Quilt Code,” in the March 2003 issue of Traditional Quiltworks.)
The Underground Railroad was about much more than exotic hiding places, and mysterious codes. Its real history is rooted in the people who made the underground work, what moved them, and how they changed America. The activists of the underground seem at the same time both startlingly modern and peculiarly archaic, combining very radical ideas about race and political action with very traditional notions of personal honor and sacred duty. In an era when emancipation seemed subversive and outlandish to most Americans, they defied society’s standards on a daily basis, driven by a sense of spiritual imperative, moral conviction, and, especially on the part of African-American activists, a fierce visceral passion for freedom.
The Underground Railroad was a movement with far-reaching political and moral consequences: It was the nation’s first first interracial political movement, its first movement of mass civil disobedience since the American Revolution, and the first American political movement to assert the principle of personal, active responsibility for others’ human rights. The Underground Railroad and the broader abolition movement were also the seedbed of American feminism. In the underground, women were for the first time participants in a political movement on an equal plane with men, sheltering and clothing fugitive slaves, serving as guides, risking reprisals against their families, and publicly insisting that their voices be heard.
Understanding the Underground Railroad has also been hampered by the seeming dearth of meaningful statistics. However, enough local underground groups published figures on the number of fugitives they aided during a given span of time to make it possible to estimate larger patterns for the system as a whole. Over the sixty-odd years of its existence, from its beginnings in Philadelphia in the 1790s to the Civil War, the underground facilitated the escape of probably something in the order of 100,000 fugitive slaves to save havens in the northern states and Canada. This is an impressive figure in terms of lives saved. But it must be understood in a larger context. There were 4 million slaves in the United States by 1860. Moreover, most slaves who fled were recaptured and returned to slavery. Although those helped to freedom by the Underground Railroad were a small percentage of the total, their impact on the hearts and minds of Americans was enormous. The underground delivered tens of thousands of fugitives into northern communities where for the first time large numbers of whites encountered former slaves, heard their heartrending stories of enslavement, and began to recognize African Americans as people like themselves.
Slave owners imagined the Underground Railroad as a vast conspiracy with tentacles that reached deep into the South. In fact, there is little evidence of organized underground activity in the Deep South, except in seaports. The great majority of successful fugitives came from just three states: Kentucky, Virginia (West Virginia did not become a state until 1863), and Maryland, all of which had long borders with free states. And most came from the upper portions of those states, where slaves were more likely to have reliable information about geography, routes north, and the Underground Railroad.
It has often been said that the true story of the Underground Railroad is unknowable precisely because the system was clandestine. In truth, plentiful evidence of the underground exists in local archives, small-town libraries, and historical societies all across the northern states. In the border country, the underground was as secret as its members could keep it. A man who grew up in southern Indiana later recalled how as a child he was frequently roused at night by his mother sobbing and his father stealthily slipping out of the house: “My curiosity, then awakened, was not wholly satisfied for a year or more, during which time the, to me, mysterious events recurred. My parents were devout Baptists, members of the church nearby, and I attended regularly the meetings and Sunday school. I heard much of wicked men, thieves, robbers, and murderers, and began to fear that my father must be engaged in some such wicked work, and I used to cry to myself when I heard poor mother crying and because, I thought, she was grieving over my father’s wickedness.” Finally, one morning, after a year of this, the boy discovered that his father was hiding fugitives in the hayloft, where he found three men, a woman, and a baby hidden concealed in the hay. “Father then explained the whole history, cautioning secrecy. Thus warning that some of the pro-slavery men might kill him, or burn his barn and other outbuildings.”
But further north, the underground was amazingly open. Abolitionist newspapers like Henry Bibb’s Voice of the Fugitive, published in Ontario, often reported underground news in detail, including the passage of fugitives through specific northern towns, and even the names of people who helped them. In some places—Albany, New York and Detroit, Michigan for example—the Underground published posters announcing what it was doing, and how many fugitives it helped. In Syracuse, New York, Jermain Loguen, a former slave who became a key figure in the local underground in the mid-1850s even advertised his home in newspapers as the main “station” in the city.
We also typically think of the Underground Railroad as a fixed system which, once established, was rarely altered. And we usually visualize fugitives on foot, or in the backs of farm wagons. In reality, the underground was never static. As new routes were opened, old ones were often abandoned. When new technology was available, the underground adapted to it. For instance, as steamboats proliferated on American rivers, overland routes sometimes fell into disuse as fugitives were sent by water. The same thing happened as iron railroads spread across the North. Harriet Tubman, having led her “passengers” north from Maryland to Philadelphia, accompanied them by trian to New York City, where she took them to Grand Central Station and bought them tickets to Albany.
Perhaps the most tenacious Underground Railroad myth of all was the monochromatic narrative of high-minded white people condescending to assist confused and terrified blacks. Only recently have African Americans begun to be restored to their rightful place at the center of the story, both as fugitives who liberated themselves by fleeing bondage, and as organizers and leaders of the Underground Railroad itself. During the long night of Jim Crow politics, this truth was actively suppressed, or at least aggressively forgotten. In a nation committed to segregation and blind to racism, the story of a politically radical, biracial movement led in part by African Americans was just too subversive to accept. Indeed, the underground’s greatest achievement may have been its creation of a truly free zone of interracial activity where blacks not only directed complex logistical and financial operations, but also supervised networks that included white men and women who were accorded no special status because of their color.