“The Color Purple” research project End of slavery is the USA – The Underground Railroad Even from the beginning of the USA slavery was the norm. White people owned the black people and made them work for them, long days, hard work and in terrible conditions. However some people realised that this was wrong. The earliest recorded rescue of slaves was in 1787 when Isaac Hopper began helping slaves escape from their owners and live free lives as they deserved.
By the 1820’s this operation was in full swing across the states, with many people joining in this heroic deed. As this whole operation grew larger and more structured it gained the name “The Underground Railroad” however the most vital point to understand is that it was neither underground nor anything to do with trains. The Underground Railroad was a secret network of roads used to lead slaves to the “free” states in the north and Canada. For the abolitionists and the slaves themselves, this was a dangerous and long trek which could last up to two years.
Thanks to the outstanding efforts made by the “train masters”, or people who orchestrated the passage of slaves to freedom (particularly Harriet Tubman, a former slave, and Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad) and the owners of safe houses (places for the slaves to rest between journeys), many slaves escaped to freedom. Many people, like Isaac Hopper, had experimental impulses to free individual slaves but this gradually became an organised operation.
The brave heroes devised a network of safe houses (homes of people willing to hide runaways overnight), this made the escapes a lot more successful and kept the routes of the slaves secret from any slave catchers in that area. (See Appendix A for a map of the routes) Although the operation was in full swing in the 1820’s, it didn’t have its name; many people called it the mysterious road (in Indiana) or something of a similar nature, each area had their own name for it.
The actual name came from the slave owners themselves, jokingly saying that there must be an underground road that the slaves escaped into whenever they failed to catch them. Later this idea was combined with the idea of safe houses being stations and it became globally known as the Underground Railroad. This operation was solely orchestrated by “station masters”, “conductors”, free blacks and sympathetic whites. By 1850 there were 3,000 people involved, and thanks to them, by the 19th century a mass of around 50,000 slaves had scaped to the north and Canada. Not a lot can be certain about the Underground Railroad, there are many stories about quilts giving messages to the slaves or the songs they sang holding hidden instructions on how to escape, the only thing that is known for certain (and most likely the only sure thing the slaves themselves knew) is that each safe house was identified by a lantern on a hitching post in the garden. Even with this information we can already see how secretive and risky this whole operation was, for slaves and abolitionists.
We have already identified the heroes of this story as being the free blacks and the sympathetic whites, but these people were incredibly kind and brave to risk their lives( and in some cases their businesses and their families lives) for the right to freedom they strongly believed all the blacks deserved. This remarkable act of kindness has been the subject or novels for years. At first the slaves made their own way to the free states, as you can imagine they were totally unfamiliar with anywhere other than where they worked, so they were often caught and therefore their hopes of freedom were diminished.
What the abolitionists actually did was, they devised formal routes for the slaves to travel, directing them to the next safe house and often transporting them and giving them food for the journey. This was very dangerous as the smallest punishment was a heavy fine and the largest being death. Most of these chivalrous people only ever saw a small part of the UR, they just had to trust that everything else was going fine and concentrate on their small job.
Each slave faced hard decisions, although as a slave they had six long days of work a week, their trek to freedom was hard and dangerous and understandably a lot of slaves were reluctant to trust white people as they had no reason to believe they were genuinely trying to help them. They just had to take a risk. And what a risk! The only information they were given was to knock on the door of the house with the lantern outside it. For a slave, simply knocking on someone’s door not knowing who would answer was a daunting task, but it had to be done in order for them to eventually be free.
At these safe houses freedom was still a long way off, the slave catchers wouldn’t be far behind and there was always a huge risk of being re-captured and returned to their tragic lives they were so desperately trying to escape from. However, once the slaves arrived in Canada these fears were diminished, they were free, and although they still faced many challenges in life, they faced them in freedom. Now with the rights to own property and vote, the slaves entered a life of a normal human being. In 1984 a slave escaped a plantation in Maryland; her name was Harriet Tubman (born Araminta. . (See Appendix B) Her owners offered a reward for her capture, beginning at $100 however this reward would soon rise to a considerable amount of money. (See Appendix C, for the poster requesting her capture). “Conductors” helped her by pretending she was their slave by day and transporting her to the next safe house by night. Eventually she reached her destination, freedom. She later said in a recount of her escape: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person.
There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven” However after a while Harriet began to feel like “a stranger in a strange land”, all of her family were back in Maryland and she was alone. This is why she decided to return. Initially her visits were to save various members of her family, but each time she returned it is said she grew in confidence which is why overall she made at least 19 trips saving more than 70 slaves.
Tubman became such a threat to the slave owners than they put the reward for her capture up to $40,000. This woman was clearly very well known however very few knew what she looked like as Frederick Douglass (who worked alongside Tubman throughout her missions against slavery) recounted in a letter he wrote to Tubman thanking her for her work. He said: “the midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism…
I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serves our enslaved people than you have” He believed that she was incredibly brave because she continued to risk her life for other even though she got no praise or encouragement, unlike those who protested in public. She was widely known as “Moses” like in the book of Exodus who led the Hebrews to freedom. Levi Coffin, the reputed present of the Underground Railroad, also played a vital role in the operation. See Appendix D) He was a business man, who moved to Indiana and opened a general store which quickly became very successful. This helped him with his costly role in the Underground Railroad. In Indiana at that time it was widely known that slaves hid, and the location of their hiding place was equally known by the slave catchers as it was by the locals. Coffin soon learnt of this and quickly made contact with the slaves and offered to hide them in his home for better safety. Others, who had previously been too scared to get involved, saw his success at not getting caught and joined in.
Together they made formal routes for the slaves between safe houses – this was locally called the mysterious road (we can already see the Underground Railroad coming together. ) Coffin helped hundreds annually; his home became known as “grand central station” because of how many slaves passed through it. His friend and family who knew of his actions urged him to give up because his life and his business were at risk. In an article later in life he spoke about this and said: “After listening quietly to these counsellors, I told them that I felt no condemnation for anything that I had ever done for the fugitive slaves.
If by doing my duty and endeavouring to fulfil the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of my Divine Master, and I felt that I had his approval. I had no fear of the danger that seemed to threaten my life or my business. If I was faithful to duty, and honest and industrious, I felt that I would be preserved, and that I could make enough to support my family” Coffin is a prime example of an unselfish man who wouldn’t give up no matter if he jeopardised his life doing so.
In Coffin’s case we see the domino effect of one person being brave enough to make a stand, followed by masses of people with the same belief following in his footsteps. 3,200 names were recorded, of the heroes who orchestrated the Underground Railroad, this is because they all believed in change, and when they saw a few people standing up to slavery they all joined in. Above all these heroic human beings never gave up, Fairbank spent a total of 17 years in prison for his fight against slavery; Garrett paid over $8,000 in fines for the same cause and Fairfield, a white conductor, ended up being killed because he wouldn’t give up.
This incredible act of human kindness and the domino effect of everyone who believes in change is still alive today. In Greensboro, North Carolina 4 black college students began a protest in Woolworths and soon after seventy thousand students took part. “It was like a fever” one of the protesters said “everyone wanted to join in” even though people were being arrested and hurt, no one gave up. It is evident that here lives the same human spirit thriving for fairness and change that was alive in the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was a secret network of roads used to lead slaves to the “free” states in the north and Canada. For the abolitionists and the slaves themselves, this was a dangerous and long trek which could last up to two years. Thanks to the outstanding efforts made by the “train masters”, or people who orchestrated the passage of slaves to freedom (particularly Harriet Tubman, a former slave, and Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the Underground Railroad) and the owners of safe houses, many slaves escaped to freedom.
We found out that the Underground Railroad was essential in helping many slaves escape to freedom, and the 3,200 plus names of heroic human beings are solely responsible for its existence, success and its results. The inspired people to fight for change and the “fever” has spread through time. The same spirit is alive today. Appendices: Appendix A a map of the formal routes the slaves travelled. This is the Underground Railroad. Appendix B Harriet Tubman, born Araminta. Appendix C Reward poster. Minty is Harriet Tubman (Araminta) Appendix D Levi Coffin, reputed president of the UR