Pictured: Absalom Jones (left) and Richard Allen (right)
A friend of mine recently stayed overnight at a bed and breakfast in New York state and told me that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Looks like I’ve got one more thing on my “to do” list!
Obviously, part of my interest in the UGRR is because of the work I did in the Saint Maggie series since my characters were involved in running an Underground Railroad station in Blaineton. I included a bit of information about the UGRR in the back matter of WALK BY FAITH and expanded it with extra information to post on today’s Squeaking Blog.
First, not all people seeking freedom from slavery used the Underground Railroad. People escaped enslavement by various means. The Underground Railroad was only one. Also, we don’t know how many people ran away from their enslavement.
The Underground Railroad was an act of civil disobedience with one goal: to help self-emancipators get to freedom. Neither a unified nor a monolithic movement, it did not have clear lines of communication. Instead, it existed as a collection of small networks, because the UGRR needed to be flexible. It also needed to be secretive. In a pro-slavery area, a station master probably only knew where the next station was located. In an abolitionist area, the presence of the UGRR was a “public secret.” Those who could be trusted knew and kept those who didn’t know in the dark.
Stations, or depots, were located about 10-20 miles apart, about as far as a person could travel at night. Self-emancipators would travel by themselves or be guided by conductors to the station, whereupon the fugitive would rap on a window, door, or front gate to let the people inside the house know they had arrived. The homeowners – called station agents – would bring the new arrival to a safe place on the premises where they would take care of any needs like food, drink, clothing, or medical care. After resting during the day, the fugitive would move to the next stop the following evening.
So, who were these station agents and conductors and organizers?
Well, they were a diverse lot. They were self-emancipators, like Harriet Tubman, who worked to bring their brothers and sisters out of slavery. They also were free black men and women, like the Rev. Absalom Jones and the Rev. Richard Allen founded the “Independent Free African Society” in Philadelphia in 1787 to help recently freed people. They were orators like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Henry Highland Garnet, and James W.C. Pennington, who spoke passionately about the plight of their brothers and sisters living in chains.
Predominantly white religious groups were involved in the UGRR, too. The best-known group, of course, was the Society of Friends (Quakers), many of whom lived in southeast and southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and also in northern Delaware and Maryland – convenient locations from which to shepherd people north on their way to freedom. Other white religious groups shared abolitionist sentiments, too: the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church (which split into the Methodist Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1844), various Baptist churches, and others played a role. So did black religious groups like the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AMEZ).
Finally, we must mention the abolition societies that began to spring up in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Not surprisingly, most of these were Northern organizations. The Philadelphia Abolition Society (later the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society) and the American Anti-Slavery Society are two of the better known. Small anti-slavery chapters usually met in towns and there were larger national or even international meetings once a year.
That’s the history. In the next blog we’ll look at The Underground Railroad from Gettysburg to Adams County and how it plays out in WALK BY FAITH and A TIME TO HEAL.