Thursday, May 26, 2016

People Taking Charge: The Underground Railroad


"I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves." - Harriet Tubman


        The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by American Slaves in the Antebellum South as they sought to escape to freedom in free states to the north. There were even some individuals who made their way all the way up into Canada. The fugitive slaves, as they were referred to by the US justice system of the day, were able to do so because of the aid that they received from abolitionists and other allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term, Underground Railroad is also used to refer to the abolitionists, free African Americans, and former slaves who assisted these runaway slaves in their quest for freedom. Various other routes led to Mexico or even overseas. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late seventeenth century until shortly after the American Revolution. The network that is now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the early nineteenth century, and it reached the height of its activities between 1850 and 1860. It has been suggested that by 1860, nearly one-hundred thousand slaves had escaped the oppression the Old South via the Underground Railroad. It is further estimated that over thirty thousand of these daring individuals successfully made it all the way to Canada, where slavery was prohibited by British law. The journey for these brave souls, no matter where they went, was not easy. Their lives were in constant danger, and their freedom was always in jeopardy as they ran from slave catchers. Numerous escaped slaves allowed their stories to be documented. Some of these are represented in the book, The Underground Railroad Records. The book was published in 1872 by William Still, an abolitionist who had been the leader the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, one of the groups that oversaw operations, when the Underground Railroad was at its height.


        From its pre American Revolution roots to its height of activity in the decade leading up to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad is estimated to have secured the escape of an average of one thousand slaves per year. During this period, no more than five thousand court cases for escaped slaves seeking their freedom were recorded. The rest either got away or were recaptured. The Underground Railroad's economic impact on the Southern economy was comparatively minuscule; however, the psychological effect that it had on slaveholders was immense. Under the legal conditions of the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, officials from free states were required to assist slaveholders or their agents in their efforts to capture their runaway slaves; however, citizens and governments of many free states intentionally ignored the law, and the Underground Railroad thrived. After intensive lobbying by Southern politicians, though, the Compromise of 1850 was passed by Congress. The law controlled the expansion of slavery, a good thing, but it also strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law, which was a very bad thing for the Underground Railroad. The new law compelled officials in free states to assist slave catchers by threatening them with criminal sanctions. It also gave slave catchers immunity for any deeds committed while in the performance of their duties, which out of fear of what they might do, further compelled officials in free states to assist them. 



        Another key point in the law was the fact that it required very little documentation to claim a person was a fugitive slave. Slave catchers, getting paid by the head, used this loophole to kidnap free men, especially children, and sell them into slavery. The fugitive slave section was included in the law because Southern politicians often exaggerated the numbers of escaped slaves. Further, they would blame these escapes on Northerners interfering with Southern property rights, a key contention in a Southern dominated Congress. The law also deprived suspected slaves of the right to defend themselves in court, which made it extremely difficult to prove their free status when their case was taken before a judge. Slave catchers, usually the agents of rich slave owners that could afford their services, were also known to bribe judges. For those judges that were not just outright bribed, the law created an incentive program for confirming people as runaway slaves. Judges, per the law, were paid a ten dollar service fee for a decision that confirmed a suspect as a slave; whereas, they were paid only five dollars for a decision that confirmed a suspect to be free. Thankfully, many people, whether they be judges, sheriffs, or other officials, still ignored the law and assisted, at great risk to themselves and their families, any an all slaves fleeing the South in their effort gain their freedom.


        The escape network that was the Underground Railroad was not literally underground, nor was it an actual railroad. It was figuratively underground in the sense that it could technically be considered an underground resistance. It was known as a railroad because of how it physically operated. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, various forms of transportation, and hidden safe houses. Each stop along the railroad was managed by an abolitionist sympathizer who worked much like a post master, receiving new arrivals and sending messages ahead to other stations on down the line. Participants generally organized in small independent groups. This allowed them to maintain secrecy and anonymity. They knew their part of the route, but little else. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one way station to the next. Conductors on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free men, white abolitionists, former slaves, and Native Americans. Church clergy and congregations often played a role, as well, especially the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as, certain sects of mainstream denominations, such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptist church helped, as well. The most critical support came from free men who residents of the various locals around the Underground Railroad's stops. Without there help, as they could vouch for suspected runaways with the law, there would have been much fewer runaways successfully escaping to freedom.


         The reason that many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation, and very little of the whole scheme was to secure their anonymity. This way people could not be cajoled into giving someone up, and they could protect themselves from any potential prosecution under federal law. Conductors led or transported the runaway slaves from station to station. When in the South, a conductor sometimes pretended to be a slave in order to enter a plantation. Once a part of the slave population on a given plantation, the conductor would work to direct as many runaway slaves northward through the Underground Railroad as they could manage. The slaves would then travel at night. Depending on the route they took, they would have to cover somewhere between ten and twenty miles between each station. They would stop at the stations or depots, as they were called, during the day to rest. A message would then be sent on to the next station to let that station master know that there fresh runaways headed their way. The stations were often located in barns, attics, under church floors, or even in hiding places like caves or hollowed out riverbanks. There was also a name given to people who gave money and supplies to the station master for operational assistance. They were known as Shareholders. There were also some biblical references used for some of the destinations along the Underground Railroad. Canada was referred to as the Promised Land because slavery was outlawed there, and the Ohio River was referred to as the River Jordan because it marked the boundary between the slave states and the free states.



        On the Underground Railroad, the modes of transportation used by the runaway slaves and their conductors varied. On occasion, they traveled by boat or train, but their normal mode of transportation was slow land based routes like trails or back roads.  On those routes, they would travel by foot or by wagon in small groups of one to three slaves; though, there were some groups that were considerably larger, especially when family units escaped together. Abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey and his colleagues took even large groups. They would rent horses and wagons and transport as many fifteen to twenty runaway slaves at a time. Ultimately, however, the majority of the successful escapes were made by individuals or small groups. Mass escapes did occur, though. The escape routes were often purposely indirect to confuse pursuers. However, the journey was often considered particularly difficult and dangerous for women and children. Children were sometimes hard to keep quiet or were unable to keep up with a group. In addition, female slaves were rarely allowed to leave the plantation, which made it harder for them to escape in the same ways that men could. Although escaping was harder for women, some women did find success in escaping. One of the most famous and successful conductors was Harriet Tubman, herself an escaped slave woman.



        As has been discussed, due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was kept secret. Normally, information was only ever passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and the professional slave catchers pursued runaway slaves as far as the Canadian border. These things made the journey perilous to say the least. Even worse, considering how lucrative a business slave catching was, runaway slaves were not the only African Americans at risk from these slave catchers. The old south was in constant need of fresh labor. With cotton booming the way that it was, strong, healthy African American males in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities. This put the freedom of former slaves and free African Americans in jeopardy, as well. There are multiple documented cases were free men were kidnapped and sold into slavery. The case of Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs, New York is the most recently popularized case. Certificates of Freedom, or Freedom Papers, were signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual African Americans.  The documents could easily be destroyed or stolen, and so even if someone was captured while in possession of their papers, the papers provided little protection to the free man or woman carrying them. The was especially true in the South, for once in the South, they would be marketed as a slave and thus, would not be able to defend themselves in a court hearing, if they were to ever be granted such a hearing in the first place. So, as is clear, anonymity on the Underground Railroad was crucial, especially for free men and runaway slaves.


        The business of selling former slaves or free men into slavery was unofficially known as the Reverse Underground Railroad. Along the Ohio River, in the southern regions of some free states like Illinois, Ohio, or Indiana, there were some communities that were sensitive to the Southern cause. In these communities, there were buildings specifically set aside for this dastardly business. The Crenshaw House, in far southeastern Illinois, is a known site where free men, specifically, were sold into slavery. Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitive slaves were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf. Technically, they were guilty of no crime, but the marshal or slave catcher needed only to swear an oath that they were in fact a slave to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of alleged stolen or misplaced property. Additionally, Congress was dominated by southern Congressmen. They were able to gain this majority, despite low white populations, because of the three-fifths clause in the Constitution that allowed them to apportion additional representatives based on the number of slaves residing in their states. They passed the aforementioned Fugitive Slave Clause in the Compromise of 1850 out of their frustration at having their slaves led to freedom by sympathetic Northerners, former slaves, and public officials in the free states. This is what gave them the power they needed to return escaped slaves to their masters and empowered slave catchers to smudge the law when it came to kidnapping free men and selling them into slavery. Opposition to slavery did not mean that all states welcomed free men. For instance, Indiana, whose area along the Ohio River was settled by Southerners, passed a state level constitutional amendment that barred free men from settling in their state. Needless to say, this did not make the Underground Railroad's job any easier, but despite all of these increased threats, including natural barriers like swamps, rivers, and other obstacles, the Underground Railroad continued to thrive. Further, until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, for many slaves, this was their only pathway to freedom. There is no record of how many men, women, and children lost their lives during this perilous journey.


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