The Underground Railroad was a network of people working to take slaves from the southern United States to freedom in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Map by the National Geographic Society

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  • The Underground Railroad was the network used by enslaved black Americans to obtain their freedom in the 30 years before the Civil War (1860-1865). The “railroad” used many routes from states in the South, which supported slavery, to “free” states in the North and Canada.

    Sometimes, routes of the Underground Railroad were organized by abolitionists, people who opposed slavery. More often, the network was a series of small, individual actions to help fugitive slaves.

    Using the terminology of the railroad, those who went south to find slaves seeking freedom were called “pilots.” Those who guided slaves to safety and freedom were “conductors.” The slaves were “passengers.” People’s homes or businesses, where fugitive passengers and conductors could safely hide, were “stations.”

    Stations were added or removed from the Underground Railroad as ownership of the house changed. If a new owner supported slavery, or if the site was discovered to be a station, passengers and conductors were forced to find a new station.

    Establishing stations was done quietly, by word-of-mouth. Very few people kept records about this secret activity, to protect homeowners and the fugitives who needed help. If caught, fugitive slaves would be forced to return to slavery. People caught aiding escaped slaves faced arrest and jail. This applied to people living in states that supported slavery as well as those living in free states.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abolitionist Noun

    person who opposes slavery.

    black Adjective

    person of African descent.

    Civil War Noun

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

    conductor Noun

    in the Underground Railroad, a person who guided slaves to safety and freedom.

    enslave Verb

    to totally control.

    free state Noun

    nation or country that outlaws slavery.

    fugitive noun, adjective

    escaped from the law or another restriction.

    North Noun

    states that supported the United States (Union) during the Civil War.

    passenger Noun

    in the Underground Railroad, a runaway slave seeking freedom.

    pilot Noun

    in the Underground Railroad, a person who went to slave states to find slaves seeking freedom and willing to risk their lives to achieve it.

    route Noun

    path or way.

    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.

    South Noun

    loosely defined geographic region largely composed of states that supported or were sympathetic to the Confederate States of America (Confederacy) during the U.S. Civil War.

    station Noun

    in the Underground Railroad, a safe place where runaway slaves could hide.

    terminology Noun

    set of terms used in a specialized subject.

    Underground Railroad Noun

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

    word-of-mouth Phrase

    rumor or informal communication.