The Underground Railroad existed for nearly forty years and was at its peak during 1810 to 1850. It was “a secret network of people working together who dared to put themselves at risk for what they knew was right. It had no one leader, no official existence, and no formal organization. It had no engines, and no trains; it had stations, but no tracks. Its passengers traveled without tickets and its conductors blew no whistles”. The Underground Railroad got its name when one slave by the name of Tice Davids escaped from his master. He jumped into the Ohio River and swam to the other side. His master pursued him only to find that he had vanished without a trace. His master was sure that he had escaped on a secret railroad, perhaps something that ran underground. The Underground Railroad was the perfect designation as most people couldn’t see it, and it seemed to run swiftly and regularly. During a time when blacks were not permitted to read or write, were bought and sold like property, and were treated much like cattle, more than 30 000 escaped to freedom using an intricate system of escape routes aided by freed slaves, blacks born free, and northern abolitionists, most of whom were white. The routes traveled by the slaves lead them North to Canada. Other routes allowed them to escape to both Mexico and the Caribbean. Their freedom did not come without a price. “One in ten slaves died before ever reaching freedom”.
The idea of escaping from one’s master was not something that happened overnight, nor was it done without much physical and mental preparation. It was done over a period of months, sometimes even years. Once a slave left, there was no turning back. A slave might die on his/her journey but returning meant certain death at the hands of his/her master.
The preparations for escape needed to be handled with the utmost of secrecy. The master could not learn of their plans as this would result in death. The slaves needed to create a secret language to prevent the master and slave seekers from learning what was going on. The secret language and codes used by the slaves were directly associated with terms of an actual railroad. A conductor was someone who led a group of slaves to freedom. A station was a safe house. The station master was the owner of the house. Escaping slaves were referred to as parcels or packages.
The slaves usually escaped at night because it was easier to hide and harder for the overseer to find them. “The constellation called the Big Dipper, also known as The Drinking Gourd, was used to help slaves determine which direction was north. They had to find the two stars that formed the side of the dipper farthest from the handle. A bright star, all by itself along this same line was the North Star”.
Navigating at night presented its own challenges. The slaves had to rely on their other senses during this time. Knowing that moss grows on the north side of trees, they used their sense of touch to feel their way through the darkness. Traveling at night was dangerous and often required that they find a place to hide when it was too dark to see. They would stay close to the streams and rivers because the river usually flowed north and it also provided them with water to drink and a way to lose their scent if the hunting dogs were close. Encountering lines of dead trees meant that they were following the “Little Tombigbee River”, which they knew as a passage to freedom.
There were numerous secret codes used to aid the slaves in navigating the Underground Railroad. Lanterns left burning in upstairs windows indicated a safe house. A white rung painted around a chimney also represented a safe house. Secret handshakes identified friend from foe. Often times, “if a white man grasped his ear as a black man passed it meant follow me to a safe house”. There were signals used to tell the slaves when it was safe to come out of hiding. Someone tapping stones meant the coast was clear...
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