“Underground Railroad”: a clandestine network to help runaway slaves

If in the imagination of many young Americans, this Underground Railroad is a veritable underground railroad – an idea taken up by Colson Whitehead for his bestseller – this Underground Railroad is, in reality, neither a train nor a metro, but rather an allegory. It is a secret network of clandestine roads and a network of meeting points and secure places that slaves, who fled the slave states of the South, took to join the abolitionist states of the North or reach Canada where slavery was abolished. since 1833. Why this flight to the North or to Canada (then British North America)? Both to satisfy their longing for freedom and to escape the excessive harshness of their servile condition. It is indeed to live more freely that they fled the plantations of the South towards the big cities, like Boston, New York or Philadelphia where they would find anonymity, work, legal aid and a community of Free Blacks.

Initially, slaves usually fled alone, without assistance. They left the plantation or their calbanon (basic slave house) at the edge of the fields, most often on foot and at night, with very little information to follow. For these freedom seekers, the immediate objective was to put the greatest distance between them and their owners, who tried at all costs to find them, sometimes by launching bounty hunters after them. Captured, they were cruelly “punished, whipped, tortured, branded, even executed for example” recalls Olivette Otele, historian at the University of Bristol, in Great Britain. Sometimes they found help along the way from sympathizers (free-born blacks, freed ex-slaves or abolitionist whites) who hid them in secure places, while helping them to continue on their way. to the North through the Undergroundrailroad: this network of refuges, roads, transport which allowed tens of thousands of people to flee the slave plantations of the South to the Northern States. More than 50,000 fled through this network.

This network, well established in 1830, was based on one principle: “each person who received a fugitive, for a few hours or several days, then directed him to the next town or hamlet where someone else could help him. Little by little, as on invisible rails, the slaves were advancing towards the North. The metaphor was spun all the way: the houses, barns and churches housing slaves were stations run by station managers, fugitives from passengers, carried by drivers ”(Volker Saux, GEO, 10/24/2018) . The trip, at his own risk, could last several months.

The most famous drivers or heroes

Among the station masters, conductors and others who contributed to the prowess of this clandestine network – an operation which was not without danger neither for the fugitives, nor for them – History has retained some famous names. Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), a slave who fled Maryland in 1849 to reach Pennsylvania to be free, is the most famous. She then returned several times to the South, to guide dozens of slaves to the North, with the collaboration of a major figure in the Underground Railroad: the Quaker Thomas Garrett (1789-1871). Another celebrity in the network is Levi Coffin (1798-1877), a Quaker from Indiana. He helped hundreds of escaped slaves, often like Thomas Garrett, by sheltering them in his Ohio home. The Quakers – members of a Protestant Church founded in 17th century England by George Fox – were, it should be noted, at the forefront of the struggle against slavery and very active in the Underground railroad.

Frederick Douglas (1817-1895), born a slave in Maryland, die-hard abolitionist activist and great self-taught orator, was another great figure of the Underground railroad like other great activists of the Underground Railroad such as than :

• John Parker (1729-1775), born a slave in Norfolk (Virginia);

• William Still (1821-1902), born to formerly slave parents in New Jersey;

• Henrietta Bowers Duterte (1817-1903), born free in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania);

• Josiah Henson (1786-1883), born a slave in Charles County (Maryland);

• Lewis Hayden (1811-1889), born a slave in Lexington (Kentucky);

• David Ruggle (1810-1849), born free in Norwich (Connecticut);

• Samuel D. Burris (1813-1863), born free in Kent County (Delaware), and many other African-Americans who risked big (captured, imprisoned and sold) by hiding the fugitives and directing them for the continuation of the journey.

Growing opposition leading to the Civil War (1861-1865)

The War of Independence and the founding of the Republic between 1778 and 1789 enabled a frontier unity between the slave states of the South and the Free States of the North. The existence of two radically opposed legal universes – that where slavery was legal and that where it was prohibited under the same sovereignty – was not sustainable in the long run. The incomprehension or the opposition could not but grow, especially as the Free States of the North did not respect, or very little, the laws on fugitives adopted upon the signing of the Constitution in 1787, obliging them to lend a hand. strong to slave hunters to track down runaway slaves wherever they are and return them to their ‘owners’.

And lo and behold, thousands of slaves fled and took refuge in the Northeastern States. For the southern states, where servile labor was one of the pillars of the economy – the cotton boom increased the number of slaveries between 1800 and 1860 from 800,000 to 4 million – this no ‘was more tolerable, especially since a Supreme Court law in 1842 absolved progressive states that refused to capture and escort fugitives. Hardening the tone, they managed to get the “Fugitive Act” passed in 1850, a law now requiring all the states of the country to actively collaborate in the arrest of fleeing slaves. The Congress of the United States, to buy civil peace, had finally given in.

This new law made liable to prosecution and condemnation all those who came to the aid of fugitives. As for the refugees, they no longer have any civic rights and are at the mercy of the police. The arrest of blacks in the streets of certain large cities (New York, Chicago, etc.), whether they are citizens or not, provokes the anger of passers-by, and arouses, here and there, real popular revolts in which blacks are freed. from the hands of the police or private trackers. For the abolitionists, this law was a provocation. We then witnessed a rise in force of all abolitionist movements or associations with a view to further helping the fugitives who were heading more and more towards Canada, which had become the promised land.

The great minds of the time, such as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathalie Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, were indignant and committed. In reaction to this provocation, the philosopher and pioneer of ecological thought, Henri David Thoreau (1817-1862), launched and theorized the idea of ​​“civil disobedience”. Entire states (Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Michigan and Visconsin) refused the new federal law and passed their own “personal freedoms” laws to better protect runaway slaves. The country is more fractured than ever and a process of civil war is gradually beginning.

Abraham Lincoln, champion of the fiercely anti-slavery Republican party, was elected on November 6, 1860. For the southern states this victory was a declaration of hostility. The war broke out on April 12, 1861. From 1861 to 1865, the United States was torn apart in a civil war, the deadliest in its history. On January 31, 1865, Congress adopted the 13th Amendment to the Federal Constitution, which permanently abolished slavery throughout the United States. It will be approved on December 18, causing the liberation of four million slaves.

It is the triumph of the struggle for human rights. It is the victory of all abolitionists. It is the victory of the Underground Railroad activists as a whole. Hundreds of sites across the country rightly maintain the memory of this network and celebrate the memory of its great figures.

Reynolds michel

Charles T. Webber, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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“Underground Railroad”: a clandestine network to help runaway slaves