During the era of slavery, the Underground Railroad was a network of routes, places, and people that helped slaves in the American South escape to the North. The name “Underground Railroad” was used metaphorically, not literally. It was not an actual railroad, but it served the same purpose—it transported people long distances. It also did not run underground, but through homes, barns, churches, and businesses. The people who worked for the Underground Railroad had a passion for justice and drive to end the practice of slavery—a drive so strong that they risked their lives and jeopardized their own freedom to help slaves escape from bondage and keep them safe along the route. 

According to some estimates, between 1810 and 1850, the Underground Railroad helped to guide one hundred thousand slaves to freedom. As the network grew, the railroad metaphor stuck. “Conductors” guided runaway slaves from place to place along the routes. The places that sheltered the runaways were referred to as “stations,” and the people who hid the slaves were called “station masters.” The fugitives traveling along the routes were called “passengers,” and those who had arrived at the safe houses were called “cargo.”

Contemporary scholarship has shown that most of those who participated in the Underground Railroad largely worked alone, rather than as part of an organized group. There were people from many occupations and income levels, including former slaves. According to historical accounts of the Railroad, conductors often posed as slaves and snuck the runaways out of plantations. Due to the danger associated with capture, they conducted much of their activity at night. The conductors and passengers traveled from safe-house to safe-house, often with 16-19 kilometers (10–20 miles) between each stop. Lanterns in the windows welcomed them and promised safety. Slavecatchers were frequently hot on their heels.

These images of the Underground Railroad stuck in the minds of the nation, and they captured the hearts of writers, who told suspenseful stories of dark, dangerous passages and dramatic slave escapes. However, historians who study the Railroad struggle to separate truth from myth. A number of prominent historians who have devoted their life’s work to uncover the truths of the Underground Railroad claim that much of the activity was not in fact hidden, but rather, conducted openly and in broad daylight. Eric Foner is one of these historians. He dug deep into the history of the Railroad and found that though a large network did exist that kept its activities secret, the network became so powerful that it extended the limits of its myth. Even so, the Underground Railroad was at the heart of the abolitionist movement. The Railroad heightened divisions between the North and South, which set the stage for the Civil War.

 

The Underground Railroad

The house of American Quaker and abolitionist Levi Coffin, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His home was a stop along the Underground Railroad, a network of routes, places, and people that helped slaves escape to the North.

Civil War
Noun

(1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

escape
Verb

to get away.

myth
Noun

legend or traditional story.

slave
Noun

person who is owned by another person or group of people.

slavery
Noun

process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.

Noun

system used by abolitionists between 1800-1865 to help American slaves escape to free states.