In honor of Black History Month, we have decided to revisit a very tough and oppressive time for African Americans and talk about the difficult and dangerous journey via the Underground Railroad (UR). I remember briefly visiting the topic in my early history classes, but there is so much that we never learned about. The harsh reality was that slavery was in full swing in the late 1700s to mid-1800s, and it took copious amounts of bravery and courage to seek freedom as well as to aid those who sought a better life.
It’s been documented that this secret network dates back as early as the 1780s, gaining peak familiarity in the 1850s. As we know, it was not actually underground, nor was it a railroad, but it was indeed an informal transportation network that had routes going to the northern states, Canada, and even Mexico and the Caribbean.
Those who were successful in reaching freedom did not do so easily, and they did not do it alone. Those who had experience navigating the routes were called “conductors,” and the most famous conductor of all was Harriet Tubman.
Tubman is said to have made a total of 19 trips into the South, escorting over 300 slaves to freedom. Her success made her infamous among slaveholders, and the rewards offered for her capture totaled to around $40,000. Many of those who harbored escaped slaves did so out of “spontaneous actions of generosity.” These people that aided those on the UR were of all ages, genders, and race; and, a lot of them were Quakers or Methodists. As time went by, more support from the North was received. Many communities raised money, provided food and shelter, and helped newly freed slaves find jobs, providing recommendations for potential employers.
To ensure the secrecy and safety of those traveling via the UR — and to also protect the vast number of people helping the slaves — secret codes were adopted by the various agents, station masters, conductors, etc. Coded songs were also used by slaves.
The “Grand Station of the Underground Railroad” was in the home of Levi Coffin, who also happened to be the “President of the Underground Railroad.” Coffin was an American Quaker and abolitionist whose wealthy adulthood put him in the position to provide the money necessary to give food, clothing, and transportation to all the local UR operations. It is said that in total he assisted more than 3,000 slaves with his efforts.
Unfortunately, slave owners and pro-slavery citizens began to catch on to the increasing number of escaped slaves, and this in turn enacted The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This made things more dangerous for both slaves and those helping them. If slaves were caught, they could be returned to their masters, even if they were currently residing in a free state; as a result, the final destination for many became Canada. Being caught as a fugitive slave could mean any number of terrible things; they could be “flogged, branded, jailed, sold back into slavery, or even killed.” Owners of escaped slaves would often post rewards for “slave-catchers” to find them and bring them back to the master’s property. This made the journey along the UR even more fearful since they were often actively being hunted down.
As for anyone who was caught helping an escaped slave or offering shelter, they could be sent to jail for up to six months and given a $1,000 fine. Yet people still kept helping, and slaves kept traveling to a life of freedom.