A lot of people in today’s modern world don’t know that the Underground Railroad wasn’t actually a railroad. It was actually a series of houses, shops, and hotels/motels that would provide blacks a way to escape slavery in the south by going north. These buildings were known as stations and the slaves were known as cargo. Between 1815 and 1860, it is estimated that 130,000 refugees escaped the south via the Underground Railroad. The railroad had as many as 3,200 active workers spread out across the stations who were all doing their part in the fight against slavery. These workers were also known as conductors. Even though it was against the law to participate in the unauthorized transportation of slaves, many people risked everything to support the cause. This “railroad,” was one of the most remarkable protests against slavery in United States history. These slaves weren’t just fighting for personal survival; they were fighting for the future of the entire African American race. As these activists risked their lives for the betterment of a society, they created a milestone in American History that lead to a more civilized world.
The Underground Railroad began as a possible solution to the freeing of slaves during the harsh sectional tensions between the North and the South in the 1800s. There was a drastic increase in slaves throughout the South of the United States as tobacco and rice plantations became the basis of its economic dependency. The cotton grown along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina differed from the cotton produced further inland, making it a top cash crop in the South. Without the working of slaves on these plantations, the financial state of the South would be destroyed. There were many codes and laws that prohibited slaves from practicing medicine, owning guns, raising animals, testifying against whites, and gathering in groups of five or more. Slaves couldn’t even practice their own religions without being supervised by a white owner. With the exception of those in Maryland, Kentucky, and the city of Washington, slaves were not legally allowed to learn to read or write. In addition to the personal restrictions of the individual slave, many white slave owners attacked relationships between slave families. Although slaves could live together as husband and wife, their marriage contracts were not even considered valid. Slave masters often separated families when selling slaves to other plantation owners. Slave owners expected mothers of newborn infants to return to work a week after giving birth. Women in the fields were forced to leave their babies unattended in the shade and were only allowed to hold and feed them twice a day. One woman reported returning to her baby son only to find a large snake curled around his body. She vowed at that moment to seek freedom for herself and her child. Antislavery ideas were present around the world beginning in the 17th century. Various Quaker groups created an antislavery mentality that dictated the morals of their practices. The Presbyterian Church was also an active force in the early fight against slavery. The church declared that slavery was “inconsistent with the law of God and totally irreconcilable with the gospel of Christ.” In the 1800s, antislavery became a more popular viewpoint as the North began to declare slavery unlawful. Emerging from New England came the Abolitionists, who often promoted their antislavery beliefs through newspapers, pamphlets, and other written tracts. In 1829, a free African American, David Walker, published a seventy-six-page antislavery pamphlet, “An appeal to the Colored People of the World.” This pleaded for slaves to rebel against their white masters and that a better day was approaching in America. As the “Appeal” became more widespread, Southern plantation owners generated a true fear that the power of free blacks was beginning to make a difference on the viewpoints of slavery.
One of the most famous abolitionists was William Lloyd Garrison, who published the first issue of The Liberator. The Liberator was an antislavery newspaper that called for the universal emancipation of the slave. In 1833, Garrison met in Philadelphia with sixty-three delegates from eleven states to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. Lucretia Mott, a Quaker woman, formed the Female Anti-Slavery Society. This organization sponsored antislavery lectures, organized fairs to raise money for printing pamphlets, and started schools for African-American children. Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave, teamed up with Garrison and became a prominent orator for abolitionists throughout the United States. Douglass was an extremely persuasive figure in African American society because he could energize a crowd with his writings and speeches. Douglass began his own newspaper, The North Star, which further advocated his antislavery beliefs by recounting his own experience as a slave. He once wrote, “He who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate Liberty. It is evident we must be our own representatives and advocates – not exclusively, but peculiarly – not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends.” These individuals were the first activists to successfully spread antislavery ideas and form the basis of what became the Underground Railroad. The first record of what was to become the Underground Railroad was on May 12th, 1786 with a letter from General George Washington. Washington wrote from his home in Virginia that “a society of Quakers in the city, formed for such purposes, have attempted to liberate” a slave who escaped to Philadelphia from Alexandria. Later that year, Washington wrote another letter referring to an escaped slave and said it might not be easy to catch him “when there are numbers who would rather facilitate the escape of slaves than apprehend them.” Those who assisted slaves in their escape did not often leave written accounts with specific details of their activities. They preferred to keep their deeds hidden and their identities anonymous. However, there are enough records collected until modern day that have led historians to conclude that organized assistance to runaway slaves grew steadily during the nineteenth century until the outbreak of the Civil War. Most slaves traveled at night when the dark could offer them some measure of protection. They used the local “railroad conductors” to help gain knowledge of local terrain. A riverbank could act as a marker or a landmark. On clear nights, many slaves looked up to the North Star for guidance. Otherwise, there was not much assistance in navigation. Fugitives began to learn more about their surroundings in order to survive. Many would change their names and rub the soles of their shoes with onions to lead the hounds astray. Clearly, a successful escape plan most often involved more than one means of transportation. Some runaway slaves hid in freight cars and were sometimes even given regular tickets on train lines. Many conductors accompanied them and devised methods for travel. Fugitives and their conductors worked together to avoid capture in the Underground Railroad. Knocks, passwords, and station keepers were all involved in the escaping process.
The Underground Railroad grew increasingly dangerous as Fugitive Slave Laws became enacted throughout the United States. With these new restrictions, slaves were no longer free as soon as they reached the North. With the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, many conductors of the Underground Railroad felt threatened by the possibility of imprisonment. Punishment was often severe for those who were involved in the rescuing of slaves. Slaves themselves were returned to their original owner to accept various means of discipline. Before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, slaves who escaped to the North soon discovered that their freedom came with a price. Slaves could not often acquire jobs or find skilled occupations. They would be turned away at certain restaurants and were denied the access of many schools and churches. Public transportation was still extremely segregated and many accommodations were immediately refused to African-Americans. Many slaves felt that escaping to Canada or Great Britain was the only alternative to facing an unjust society. As the North became a more threatening escape route, many slaves began to create Railroads into Canada. When American soldiers of the War of 1812 claimed that Canada had abolished slavery and would harbor fugitives, many slaves began to make their way north of the border. The Southernmost state that had an active Underground Railroad was North Carolina. Slaves in the deeper south often headed for Florida where they could be taken in by the Seminoles and other Native American tribes. Many slaves decided to escape to Great Britain for their reputation for having an antislavery sentiment. There were no restrictions on public transportation or segregated restaurants, schools, and churches. For decades, many British abolitionists were sending money and supplies to conductors working the Underground Railroad to support the cause. If the journey could be made to Britain, the resulting lifestyle would be worth it. Many fugitive slaves migrated to Britain to pursue a career or education. Samuel Ward, a fugitive slave and active abolitionist, studied classics and theology before becoming an ordained minister. A famous woman who was accountable for many aspects of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in 1820 and escaped from her master in 1849. The next year, she returned to Baltimore to rescue her family, her brother, and two other slaves. She would always return to the South to assist the escape of many others who could not help themselves. Tubman managed to free her elderly parents from slavery by building a makeshift carriage that she strapped to her horse. Harriet Tubman traveled to the South nineteen times to lead more than three hundred fugitives out of slavery. Slaveholders and plantation owners throughout the Southern United States feared Tubman’s bravery and would offer various rewards for her capture. Another individual that contributed his services to the Underground Railroad was Levi Coffin. Coffin was a Quaker man from North Carolina that earned the title of President of the Underground Railroad. Although he was not formally elected, Coffin became known as president while running the most active station in the Underground Railroad for thirty-three years. In Coffin’s station, he would collect money for fares to Canada, feed hungry slaves, and locate new stations for the runaways. Coffin had a doctor on site for slave’s medical needs and his wife always had food available. More than 3,000 slaves came through Coffin’s door during the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad saved thousands of fugitive lives throughout several centuries of American History. Established to create a system of escape, the influence of the Underground Railroad generated many abolitionists, activists, and orators to spread antislavery ideals throughout the country. The creation of the Fugitive Slave Laws and the imbalance of slave states versus free states fueled the tensions between the North and South. The issue of slavery seemed to be provoking ideas of secession as the South became threatened by the Abolitionist Movement spreading throughout the country. Not only were many fugitive lives saved during the Underground Railroad, but giving slaves the chance to escape generated many inspiration people of the 1800s. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other escaped slaves used their abilities to persuade others to accept antislavery morals. Telling stories of their own tragedies and revealing hidden truths became a motivation for many abolitionists throughout the century. The Underground Railroad will remain a significant event in United States history as it highlights the bravery that was illustrated during the fight against slavery. Work Cited
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