The Underground Railroad was first and foremost an act of civil disobedience that had one goal: to help any fugitive slave who asked for it.
Because its activities needed to be secretive, the UGRR did not have a central organization, lacked coherence, and had indistinct lines of communication. As a result, its main structure was cell-like. It is likely that UGRR networks functioned locally and/or on the county level. These networks were loosely connected by individuals or families to regional networks, which made it possible for a self-emancipator to move from one network to another.
How much other people knew about the Underground Railroad in their area was conditioned by whether the location was pro-slavery or abolitionist. Secrecy was the greatest need in pro-slavery areas, so people working with the UGRR would know only the names of collaborators in neighboring towns. However, in an area that was pro-abolition, the presence of the Underground Railroad was more like a public secret, albeit one hidden from the anti-abolition folks.
An important thing to remember is that not all self-emancipators used the UGRR. This may have been because they didn’t know about the organization or because they managed to free themselves through other means.
I also want to reiterate that the UGRR was diverse. Although people of color were the primary movers, the Underground Railroad was made up of free blacks, escaped slaves, abolition societies, and religious organizations.
The earliest reference to a secret network for runaway slaves is found in a letter written by George Washington to Robert Morris of Pennsylvania in 1786. Washington discusses a lawsuit regarding a slave, noting that local Quakers seemed to have had a hand in the escape. Washington states that Philadelphia Quakers appeared to be aiding self-emancipators on a regular basis.
So, where did the term “Underground Railroad” come from? Well, it seems the terminology emerged in the 1830s. The ability for an escaped slave to vanish into thin air made it seem as if he or she could vanish into thin air and travel via “an underground road” or “an underground railroad." If this confuses you, just think J.K. Rowling’s secret Hogwarts train at Platform 9 ¾, King’s Cross Station. Although nineteenth-century people knew better, the stealthy disappearance of self-emancipators made it seem as if something somehow was spiriting people away right under other people’s noses.
Given the name applied to this act of civil disobedience, people who worked on the Underground Railroad embraced the railway terminology within their organization.
Stations or depots were safe houses about 10-20 miles apart, about as far as a person could travel or be guided in one night. When a self-emancipator arrived at the station/depot, he or she would signal the family or person inside the house by a rapping on a window, door, or front gate. After a short chat, the fugitive would be given food, clothing, and medical attention. Sometimes a runaway would be hidden in a secret room, cellar, attic, barn, or other place until the following night. At that time, the self-emancipator would move on to the next station.
Station agents were the people who lived inside the safe house.
Conductors were people specially designated to escort the runaway to the next station by foot, wagon, or carriage.
Lines referred to the routes that self-emancipators and UGRR participants followed.
I used some of what I learned to describe how the Underground Railroad operates in the Saint Maggie series. An example is below.
You might be wondering, “If the Underground Railroad was such a big secret, how did we learn all about it?” Good question!
Some information is described outright or alluded to in traditional primary sources by people who managed to escape or who helped slaves escape. Here are some of those folks: Frederick Douglass, William Still, Rev. Calvin Fairbanks, Samuel Ringgold Ward, William and Ellen Craft, and Levi Coffin. I encourage you to query one or two of their names on Google or any other search engine. See what they had to say.
Antebellum-era government reports, letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles are another way we have uncovered information about the Underground Railroad.
A final (and excellent) resource are historical societies that do local research. They seek to fill in the blanks, uncover more information, and expand research on the Underground Railroad in their area. You even might want to pay a visit to a historical society or take a look at their website. You may be surprised at what you find.
On Wednesday, we’ll look at who participated in the Underground Railroad and what they risked doing it.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder