SLAVERY AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
The simple fact is that everybody has heard of the Underground Railroad, but not everyone knows just what it was. First of all, it wasn=t underground, and it wasn=t even a railroad. The term AUnderground Railroad, actually refers to a path along which escaping slaves were passed from farmhouse to storage sheds, from cellars to barns, until they reached safety in the North. One of the most widely known abolitionists in history is a slave by the name of Harriet Tubman. She is best known as the conductor of the Underground Railroad and risked her life to help free nearly 300 slaves. The primary importance of the Underground Railroad was the ongoing fight to abolish slavery, the start of the Civil War, and it was one of our nation=s first major anti-slavery movements.
The history of the Underground Railroad has various opinions, according to what you are reading and to whom you are talking. Slavery in America thrived and continued to grow because there was a scarcity of labor. Cultivation of crops on plantations that were owned by rich white men in the South, could be supervised while slaves used simple routines to harvest them. Considering the extremely low costs that the slaves could be bought, the profits earned were bonuses for not having to pay hired work.
Hundreds of slaves turned to freedom for more than one reason. Some obviously wanted to be free and live a life where they were no longer tortured or had to live in conditions that were no better than those of animals. One writer described such a – Ait was a dismal chamber, its only lights consisting of a few panes of glass through which the sun never shone. The space between the loose boards of the floor and the uneven earth below was often filled with mud and water. Inmates of both sexes and all ages slept on those damp boards, like horses, with a little straw and a (Harriet Tubman, Slavery and the Underground Railroad, pg. 24) Others ran due to the fear of being separated or sold from their friends and family. Since the beginning of the African Slave Trade that brought slaves to America in 1444, the slaves wanted to escape. Those who were free at that time were the white people who seemed to be separated in values. The North was a more industrialized area where jobs were filled by newly imported immigrants, making them less dependent on slave labor. The South however, had rich fertile land that was mostly used for farming. There were vast plantations that needed to be worked on to cultivate crops. For the most part, the people of the area tended to be more genteel and seemed not quite adjusted to hard work, but more of giving orders. The idea of telling people what to do and how to do it, just seemed to fit all to well into this scenario.
The Railroad did not have a certain location as I mentioned above. Since the 1500’s slaves had been running on their own. When the idea caught on among the brave slaves, was when it began to take form. Slave owners in the South certainly weren=t happy about the loss of their As a result to the slaves rebelling much money was lost as well as slaves. As a result of this, the South passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. This law gave the federal judges the right to decide, without a jury, whether someone accused of being a fugitive should be returned to the person who claimed to be his or her master. The North was upset about the treatment of the slaves and was not happy about owners being allowed to come into their states to take the slaves back. Finally, the North decided to do something about it. To get revenge on the south, they would take away the South=s riches. They would help the slaves escape to freedom. The slaves were now angry, scared, and confused. Hearing of this Underground Railroad, they slowly began to escape more and more.
By 1807, a law was passed that made it illegal to import anymore slaves. Agricultural improvements came along, and with the limited number of slaves left in the states, the value of the slaves went up very quickly. Abolition societies and religious groups began to form, and they became active in helping slaves to freedom. Soon after, the Underground Railroad began to take shape. were formed to aide the slaves to freedom. These hiding places were known as which were regular stops on the route to freedom. Along the way, there were depots and safe houses to stay in. These were houses of free whites or blacks where they could hide when they weren=t running. The people who owned these houses were often known as conductors. The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves to follow so they didn=t go to houses that belonged to allies of the slave owners. For example, a quilt on the clothes line depicting a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of bricks around the top of a house=s chimney was another. Shops that were safe often had a silhouette of a fleeing man or woman on a sign. Other signs were used to guide the slaves as well. There were also specific knocks that slaves would use when approaching safety stations. When a slave was moving to the next house along the Railroad, it was called Acatching the next To help some of the slaves remember the routes, there were songs that were formed that they would sing to help with the directions. One of these songs was called AFollow the Drinking The drinking gourd was the slaves terminology for the Big Dipper=s handle which points to the North Star, which they often used to find their way North. The songs also gave landmarks along the way, such as AThe dead trees will show you the Slaves had many possible directions to run, but the main idea was safety and speed. The slaves would often zigzag in their paths to avoid being caught. There were different forms of fleeing as well. Slaves could travel by water on boats. In the video used for our panel ARoots for Resistance,@ was a scene that demonstrated how they would travel by boat and the safety features they would look for. For example, when crossing the river, if there was one lit lantern, the path was safe. However, it there were two or none, it meant danger.
Besides the safety stations on the way to a slaves freedom, the people in the North that were willing to lend a hand, also utilized many clever disguises. In some cases, slave=s clothes were exchanged for those of a rich free person to color to confuse the true identity of a slave when seen by curious eyes. There were also some slaves that traveled by road. They would rode in carriages, wagons that often contained a fake bottom where there was a tiny space where slaves could lie down on their journey to freedom. Some even traveled on the surface lines of the actual railroads. The even more daring slaves would travel as baggage in luggage.
In the end, slaves had to find a way to fit in as best as they could with the people of the North. Some of the escaped fugitives met up with previously escaped friends and family and formed communities. Others found a haven in the Native American population with whom they intermarried and reproduced. After the Civil War began, others found shelter with the Union Army. The slaves soon found out that freedom did not mean the freedom not to work, but their lives were much better because they were allowed to make their own decisions. Although many slaves were free, they still remained illiterate for the most part, and once again they were taken advantage of by cruel employers. Those who learned to do specific jobs in the South often took up similar jobs in the North. The need for the Underground Railroad slowly began to decrease as he fight for abolishing slavery grew stronger. The final motion that brought the Underground Railroad to an end was the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, which ended slavery in our now free country, forever.
McClard, Megan. Harriet Tubman, Slavery and the Underground Railroad. New Jersey: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Hart, Albert Bushnell. Slavery and Abolition. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1906.
Roots of Resistance, Slavery and the Underground Railroad. Videotape.
Clinton, Catherine. Half Sisters of History. Duke University Press, 1994.