Underground Railroad, beginning in the early 19th century and continuing well up to the Civil War, the so-called freedom train was a secret and extensive network of people, places, and modes of transportation that led runaway slaves from the southern United States to freedom in the North and Canada.Well I don’t know how and I don’t know when, But we’re gonna be free one day.
That the freedom train’s comin’ round the bend And we’re gonna be free one day. But it’s comin’ sure and its comin’ fast That we’re gonna be free one day. We’re gonna step on board and be free at last!
Freedom was always on the minds of African American slaves; it was a destiny that became idealized in many African American spirituals (including the one excerpted above). The “freedom train” came infrequently and was often not on time.
But when it did arrive, it was big enough and strong enough to carry the souls of the weary and to lighten the burdens of the downtrodden. The freedom train even brought hope and inspiration to those who could not physically make it on board. For years slaveholders mistakenly attributed the imagery of the freedom train in Negro spirituals to fanciful illusions in the minds of slaves about dying and going to heaven.
It is now generally known, as the slaveholders learned, that the freedom train was real and powerful.Known officially as the Underground Railroad, the freedom train was an extensive network of people, places, and modes of transportation all working in the deepest secrecy to help transport slaves to freedom in the North and Canada. Many slaves made the journey with the help of guides, who were often free blacks committed to the cause of abolition.
White abolitionists also made significant contributions, but the freedom train was a powerful political statement made by African Americans who chose to “vote for freedom with their feet.”
Historians have traditionally underestimated and understated the role of blacks, and overestimated the role of sympathetic whites in the Underground Railroad. White abolitionists did provide safe houses, money, boats, and other material resources that were sometimes vital to successful escapes. But free blacks often risked much more their own freedom and lives in order to travel South, to help lead others to safety.
Among the more prominent “conductors” of the freedom train was Harriet Tubman. A former slave who had escaped to the North, Tubman traveled to the South an estimated 19 times and guided more than 300 slaves to freedom. She epitomized the success and daring of the freedom train. Through her stories and those of others, there exists a rich legacy detailing the network that is said to have helped over 1000 slaves each year to free themselves from bondage.
Few details of the Underground Railroad are known because of the extreme secrecy required in its operation, but there are reports of its existence as early as 1837. The exact number of slaves who were freed by the railroad is also not known because, in the interests of security, the conductors of the railroad could not keep records.
Although this number was never high enough to threaten the institution of slavery itself, the legends and metaphor of the freedom train proved much more ominous to slaveholders. Tales that were often repeated throughout the nation included, for example, the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a black man who packed himself in a wooden crate and shipped himself to freedom in Philadelphia, and the story of William and Ellen Craft, a married couple whose escape was based on their disguise she as a “Spanish gentleman” and he as her black slave. The accounts of runaway slaves instilled fear in the hearts of Southern slaveowners, and inspired Northern abolitionists to form larger and stronger antislavery organizations.
As the Underground Railroad gained notoriety, it became even more secret. A virtually undetected escape route ran from Texas to Mexico, but almost no information exists about how it functioned or how many African Americans quietly blended into the Mexican populace. It became difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction in accounts of the escapes. But researchers have been able to uncover many details, especially from the accounts of free blacks who wrote memoirs or autobiographies.
Free blacks such as William Still, David Ruggles, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Highland Garnet joined Tubman in the struggle for self-emancipation. Most worked in silence and sometimes even in disguise.Runaway slaves waded through swamps, concealed themselves in the hulls of ships, hid on the backs of carriages, and navigated circuitous routes by using the North Star at night always with the understanding that they might be caught or betrayed at any time.
Many were pursued by professional slavecatchers (some with dogs), who all had the authority to detain and hold itinerant African Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The southern press was full of advertisements for escaped slaves. These descriptions constitute one of the few sources of accurate personal details about individuals in the slave community. The advertisements, in the slaveholders’ own words, often mentioned maimed limbs and scars from whipping vivid descriptions that northern abolitionists used verbatim in their condemnation of slavery.
On the way to freedom, slaves and their guides often found it difficult to obtain food, clothing, and shelter. Free blacks in cities such as Philadelphia and Boston formed Vigilance Committees to meet these and other needs. The committees cared for runaways after they arrived on free soil, hid them to prevent their recapture, and aided them on their way to Canada.
The Philadelphia Association for the Moral and Mental Improvement of the People of Color was one of the most prominent black vigilance committees.With the aid of black vigilance committees the underground railroad continued to guide slaves to freedom, up until the time of the Civil War itself, when thousands of slaves freed themselves by leaving the plantations and escaping behind Union Army lines.
For those who still labored as slaves at the beginning of the Civil War, the legend of the Underground Railroad held out hope. In the words of another Negro spiritual:I know my Lord is a man of war; He fought my battle at Hell’s dark door. Satan thought he had me fast; I broke his chain and got free at last.