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The Underground Railroad: Between Myth and Reality


For more than two centuries, countless numbers of Black people were forced out of their homelands and subjected to the horrors of slavery in the United States. During this extremely long and dark chapter in human history, a glimmer of hope emerged in the form of a system of aids meant to facilitate the escape of runaway slaves seeking freedom in the Northern states and Canada: The Underground Railroad. Although neither underground nor a railway, the Underground Railroad owns its name to the secretive nature of its operations. In this regard, famous American abolitionist and educator John Ranking explains that “it was so called because they who took passage on it disappeared from public view as really as if they had gone into the ground” (Ritchie, 1870). The network, which became active in the early 19th Century, made history as the most ingenious effort of individuals, primarily free and enslaved African Americans, to dismantle the institution of slavery.


Since slavery was legitimated by the State, any effort to undermine or disrupt it was legally prosecutable, and thus, the Underground Railroad needed utmost secrecy. As a result, very little information is available surrounding this clandestine organization, which ultimately led some historians to question its actual existence. Whether it be an exaggerated myth or a real historical event, the Underground Railroad stands today as a powerful symbol of African Americans' relentless battle in the pursuit of freedom, as well as their stance against the prevailing narrative that sought to portray Black individuals as being inherently "submissive" and “unbothered” with their condition of bondage. In light of what has been said, this article aims to explore this curious moment in American history by offering a useful contextualization of its origins. After picturing together how the system used to operate thanks to the few accounts in existence, the final section will delve into the criticism surrounding the Underground Railroad, by ultimately recognizing the conflicting perspectives on what this unique network of aids actually used to be.



A sketch of fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, 1838 (Granger Archive, 2012).
Figure 1: "UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, 1838". Runaway slaves traveling North along the Underground Railroad in 1838 (Illustration, c.1931).

Historical Context


As previously mentioned, in the U.S. slavery was legitimate by law. This meant that laws, also known as slave laws (Britannica, 2022), were enacted to reinforce and ensure the absolute authority of the slave owner over the enslaved individuals, who were in return treated as mere pieces of property to profit from. Escaping from bondage under such circumstances was, therefore, an extremely perilous task, as recapture or even death loomed as constant threats.


In the meantime, abolitionist movements in the North started to intensify, advocating for the end of slavery and providing refuge for runaway slaves. By 1804, most of the Northern states had voted in favor of abolishing the “peculiar institution” or were in the process of doing so. The fact that these abolitionist movements were gaining more and more ground led slaveholders to demand stricter laws to make it harder –if not impossible– for enslaved people to attempt freedom. In 1793, the Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, which legitimated slave owners and their hired slave catchers to capture and return fugitive slaves. Unsurprisingly, the promise of financial rewards for their recaptures turned this wicked game into a profitable business for white people at the expense of Black bodies.



Cartoon criticizing the Fugitive Slave Acts (Britannica, n.d).
Figure 2: "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law" (Hoff & Bloede, 1850).

The following Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was another successful attempt at legitimizing the work of self-hired slave catchers and federal marshals in convicting not only runaways but also anyone suspected of aiding them. In other words, anyone who obstructed their work or provided shelter to fugitives was threatened with fines or with the risk of imprisonment (Buckmaster, 1938). As accurately stated in the renowned Encyclopedia Britannica (2022):

Under this law, fugitives could not testify on their own behalf, nor were they permitted a trial by jury. Heavy penalties were imposed upon federal marshals who refused to enforce the law or from whom a fugitive escaped; penalties were also imposed on individuals who helped slaves to escape.

Moreover, it was stipulated that the 1850 law had a retroactive effect, meaning that also former slaves who had successfully fled bondage and resided in the North could be returned to their owners without a proper trial. This law not only disadvantaged Black people, both free and enslaved, by denying them the right to testify in their defense, but it also authorized all citizens to assist slave hunters in their pursuit.


Precisely in these tumultuous times, the Underground Railroad emerged as a clandestine network of routes and safe houses, aimed at assisting slaves in reaching the free North (Buckmaster, 1938).


The Structure of the Underground Railroad


Due to its secret activities, the Underground Railroad employed a system of coded language to communicate that was based on the metaphor of the railway. The term “conductor”, for example, referred to the member of the organization who guided runaway slaves from the plantation all the way to the nearest free state. Harriet Tubman, a former slave , is one of the most praised conductors of the Underground Railroad and she is remembered for the invaluable help she gave guiding many of her People to freedom after having escaped bondage hersel in 1849. One of Tubman’s most famous quotes reveals her invaluable support to the organization:

I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger (Tubman, 1896).
Visual tribute of Harriet Tubman (Christyl O’Flaherty, n.d).
Figure 3: Photo Tribute "Harriet Tubman guides by lantern light" (O’Flaherty, 2020).

For her deeds, Harriet Tubman was known as the “Moses of her People”, and homage is paid to this incredible national hero in the form of spirituals, which were songs typically sung by slaves during working hours and often used to spread secret information about the Underground Railroad among Black individuals. “Git on Board Little Children” is probably the most evident one dedicated to her. The lyrics refer to a “Gospel train” approaching on which every individual is treated equally, “No second class upon this train”, and everyone collectively join towards the final destination: emancipation (Curtis, 1996).

According to eminent scholar Buckmaster (1938), in the organization of the Underground Railroad, “rigid discipline was maintained and no latitude allowed for failure” (142). Conductors normally followed a meticulous plan. Firstly, they had to become extremely familiar with the Southern territories (Buckmaster, 1938) and memorize trails, streams, and caves, in order to be prepared to carry out the mission through any possible scenario. While Black conductors usually would disguise themselves as slaves to infiltrate the plantations and share the words of hope and freedom among their brothers and sisters, white abolitionists and sympathizers would pretend to be peddlers, school teachers, map-makers, or musicians so as not to arouse any kind of suspicion. For example, Rial Cheadle of North Dakota, a white American abolitionist, managed to make multiple trips to the Southern state of Virginia and was never suspected of aiding slaves escaping simply because he would pose himself as an imbecile in the eyes of slave masters (Buckmaster, 1938). Secondly, at the plantation, the conductor would select a trusted enslaved man deemed capable of helping in executing the plan, who then would enlist as many of his comrades as possible, and hold a meeting in which all the details of the flight had to be discussed and arranged. While one extra member of the Underground Railroad, known as the “agent”, would remain on the plantation to distract the masters if needed, the rest of the crew would start heading north (Buckmaster, 1938). At this point, the life-threatening mission had begun.


Map of the Underground Railroad (National Geographic Society, n.d).
Figure 4: Map of the Underground Railroad (National Geographic Society, n.d).

During the night, the conductor would lead the “cargos”, which was the coded name for the runaways during the secret operations, through “woods, fields, and the beds of streams” (Buckmaster, 1938, pp.144). By dawn, the team had to reach a “station”, another coded term that referred to the houses that functioned as shelters for the operations of the Underground Railroad, which were scattered in a zig-zag path (Siebert, 1896) leading North. The stations could be abandoned barns, attics, and old cribs, but also real habited houses. Once more, scholar Buckmaster (1938) informs us:

Some of the stations were elaborate and dramatic affairs. The house of one Joseph Morris, in Ohio, for instance, had a complicated and ingenious network of false walls, a cellar with secret changers large enough to hide dozens of refugees, and two tunnels from the cellar to the barn and corn crib (146).

Photography of the home or “station” of Levi Coffin, American Quaker and abolitionist (Cincinnati Museum Center, n.d).
Figure 5: Photography of the home or “station” of Levi Coffin, American Quaker and abolitionist (Cincinnati Museum Center, n.d).

At the stations, fugitive slaves would find solace during the hours of sunlight, often receiving food and protection. An interesting way for fugitives to identify the stations of the Underground Railroad, according to Professor of Art History at the University of Howard, Raymong G. Dobard, was by means of quilts – a type of bed covering or a decorative textile made by stitching together layers of fabric. To be more specific, Professor Dobard (2004) argues that during the operations of the Underground Railroad, quilts “had a role far greater than the pursuit of art” (44), in that they were often hung outside the window of houses to signal the stations belonging to the secret project of the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, there is no actual record that attests to the existence of such quilts and thus, “there is no certainty whether they in fact existed or to what extent they played a role in helping slaves escape to freedom” (Dobard, 2004).

Some runaway slaves used various disguises to escape bondage, frequently employing creative methods. Men would often dress in women's clothing, while women would disguise themselves as boys (Buckmaster, 1938). They would acquire railway passes, whether forged or genuine, and obtain tickets that were marked to be recognized by abolitionist trainmen. An example of this is reported in Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, in which the author explains how he used a sailor’s free papers to flee Maryland (Gara, 1961). These passes and tickets facilitated their travel, which was often still arduous and fraught with danger. In one instance, a slave was shipped north in a casket, with air holes provided, arriving at his destination in a near-death state. These and many other tricks of disguise allowed fleeing slaves to navigate through the perils of their escape until the Ohio River, which was to many the first real taste of freedom (Buckmaster, 1938).


Henry Fox Brown had himself packed in a wooden box and shipped to Philadelphia (Camden, 2001).
Figure 6: "Resurrection of Henry Fox Brown" (Bensell, Schell, et al.,1872).

Criticism


The need for secrecy throughout the existence of the Underground Railroad resulted in the loss of the majority of records and documents concerning its activities. Consequently, our understanding of the Underground Railroad heavily relies on the recollections of influential white abolitionists who were involved in its operations. This problem has raised not a few concerns about the accuracy and potential biases in the narrative (Siebert, 1896) and progressively led some scholars to re-evaluate the dynamics behind this curious chapter in human history, which is now believed to be the product of the blending of facts, and exaggerations (Gara, 1961).

According to Larry Gara (1961), a renowned American historian, and writer, slaves who escaped bondage were typically resourceful individuals who meticulously planned and executed their own escapes. Some simply walked away from slavery, traveling by night and finding hiding places during the day. Many others, despite not knowing their surroundings, were at least aware of the guiding presence of the North Star and received oftentimes directions from other fellow slaves, free African Americans, or sympathetic white individuals in the South. Nevertheless, Gara argues that while there were vigilance committees aimed at safeguarding Black individuals from kidnappers, the Underground Railroad did not evolve at any point into a centralized and organized network of aids. On the contrary, fugitives who successfully reached the Underground Railroad often did so after enduring the most treacherous and challenging portions of their journey without any external assistance. The aid provided by abolitionists, according to this account, although undoubtedly valuable, it was not necessarily essential for the slaves' successful escape from bondage (Gara, 1961).


Fugitive slaves fleeing South to an Underground Railroad depot in Delaware, 1850 (Peter Newark, n.d).
Figure 7: "Twenty-Eight Fugitives Escaping from the Eastern Shore of Maryland" (Bensell, Schell, et al., 1872).

As a result, Larry Garra and several other scholars who, like him, have spent their lives studying this unique historical phenomenon, came to argue that a significant portion of the Underground Railroad narrative has been embellished, often portraying white abolitionists as heroic figures willing to make great sacrifices for Black people’s liberation. This emphasis on the heroic abolitionist stereotype has, in turn, perpetuated a negative image of fugitive slaves as ignorant and helpless (Gara, 1961), even though the reality of facts was definitely far more complex than what those abolitionist accounts made it to be.


Conclusion


In conclusion, the Underground Railroad remains a symbol of hope and resistance in the face of slavery's horrors, though its exact nature and extent continue to be debated. The lack of comprehensive records and the reliance on personal accounts from white abolitionists present challenges in piecing together an accurate historical narrative. Larry Gara's perspective highlights that while the aid provided by abolitionists was valuable, the success of fugitive slaves often relied on their own resourcefulness and self-reliance. This challenges the notion of a centralized and organized network and emphasizes the agency of the escaping slaves themselves. The Underground Railroad narrative has been subject to embellishment, particularly in highlighting the role of white abolitionists as heroic figures while sometimes downplaying the strength and determination of the fugitive slaves. While the Underground Railroad may have been shrouded in secrecy and its historical details remain elusive, its enduring legacy as a symbol of African Americans' unwavering fight for freedom and defiance against the dehumanizing institution of slavery remains a powerful testament to their resilience and determination. At last, national heroes such as Harriet Tubman are a testament to the existence of a collective effort, centralized or not, of African Americans aimed at dismantling slavery.


Bibliographical References

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022). Fugitive Slave Acts. Encyclopedia Britannica. URL: https://www.britannica.com/event/Fugitive-Slave-Acts


Buckmaster, H. (1938). The Underground Railroad. The North American Review, 246(1), 142–149. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115012


Curtis, M. V. (1996). The Lyric of the African-American Spiritual: The Meaning behind the Words. The Choral Journal, 37(1), 15–19. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23550831


Dobard, G. R. (2004). The Underground Railroad and the Secret Codes of Antebellum Slave Quilts. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 46(1), 44–44. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/4133668


Gara, L. (1961). The Underground Railroad: Legend or Reality? Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 105(3), 334–339. http://www.jstor.org/stable/985459


Ritchie, A. (1870). The Soldier, the Battle, and the Victory. Being a Brief Account of the Work of Rev. John Rankin in the Anti-Slavery Cause. Cincinnati: Western Tract and Book Society. 96–97. URL: https://archive.org/details/ASPC0002367700


Siebert, W. H. (1896). Light on the Underground Railroad. The American Historical Review, 1(3), 455–463. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/1833723


Tubman, H. (1896). Women's Suffrage Meeting led by Susan B. Anthony, Rochester, New York. In. Hobson, J. (2014). Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance. Meridians, 12(2), 1–8. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2979/meridians.12.2.1


Visual Sources

Cover Image: Houston, J.A. P.. (1853) The Fugitive Slave. The Johnson Collection [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27The_Fugitive_Slave%27_by_John_Adam_Plimmer_Houston.jpg


Figure 1: n. a. (1931). "UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, 1838". Runaway slaves travelling North along the Underground Railroad in 1838. [Illustration, c.1931]. Photo taken by Granger Historical Picture Archives, 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.granger.com/results.asp?image=0038765


Figure 2: Hoff & Bloede [publishers]. (1850). "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law". [Lithograph Cartoon]. Retrieved from: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/8096hpr-e43cd19d18c7971/


Figure 3: O’Flaherty, C. (2020). Harriet Tubman guides by lantern light [Photo Tribute]. Retrieved from: https://www.boredpanda.com/california-artists-make-visual-tribute-to-harriet-tubman-in-recognition-of-black-history-month-2020/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic


Figure 4: National Geographic Society. (n.d). Underground Railroad: Routes to Freedom. [Map]. Retrieved from: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/undergroundrailroad/


Figure 5: Cincinnati Museum Center. (n.d). Home of Levi Coffin [Photo]. In the National Geographic Encyclopedia Entry, "The Underground Railroad". Retrieved from: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/underground-railroad/


Figure 6: Bensell, Schell, et al. (1872). "Resurrection of Henry Fox Brown" [Illustration/Engraving]. In Still, W. (1872), The Underground Railroad. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/undergroundrailr00stil/page/n101/mode/1up / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Resurrection_of_Henry_Box_Brown.png


Figure 7: Bensell, Schell, et al.(1872). "Twenty-Eight Fugitives Escaping from the Eastern Shore of Maryland" [Engraving]. In Still, W. (1872).The Underground Railroad. Retrieved from: https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=117270




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Zlatica Shemova
Zlatica Shemova
Jul 11, 2023

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