What is the Underground Railroad?
The origin of the term â€śunderground railroadâ€ť cannot be precisely determined. What is known is that both those who aided escapes from slavery and those who were outraged by loss of slave property began to refer to runaways as part of an â€śunderground railroadâ€ť by the 1830s. The â€śunderground railroadâ€ť described an activity that was locally organized, but with no real center. It sometimes existed rather openly in the North and often just beneath the surface of daily life in the upper South and certain Southern cities. The underground railroad, where it existed, offered local aid to runaway slaves, assisting them from one point to another. Farther along, others would take the passenger into their transportation system until the final destination had been reached.
The Underground Railroad in American History
The Underground Railroad refers to the effort â€“ sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized â€“ to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery. While most runaways began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in the public perception of a secretive network and in the number of persons willing to give aide to the runaway. The period under consideration in the National Park Serviceâ€™s Underground Railroad Resources in the United States Theme Study is primarily the 1780s to 1865, with emphasis on the years from 1830 to 1865 when most antislavery advocates abandoned their hope for gradual emancipation and adopted immediate abolition of slavery as their goal. Although divided, the abolitionist movement was successful in expanding the informal network known as the underground railroad and in publicizing it.
It is not exactly clear when slave escapes came to be thought of as part of an â€śunderground railroad.” According to one popular story, the phrase orginated when a slave named Tice Davids fled from Kentucky in 1831, probably taking refuge in Ripley, Ohio. The owner chased Davids in a rowboat as the fugitive swam across the Ohio River to Ripley, where he disappeared without a trace, leaving the bewildered slaveholder to wonder if Davids had somehow â€śgone off on some underground railroad.â€ť The story spread among slaves and slaveholders throughout the country, fueling myths and hopes of escape via an â€śunderground railroad.â€ť
The term â€śunderground railroadâ€ť had no meaning to the generation before the first rails and engines of the 1820s, but the retrospective use of the term in the National Park Serviceâ€™s Theme Study is made so as to include incidents which have all the characteristics of underground railroad activity, but which occurred earlier. These activities foreshadowed and helped to shape the underground railroad. While the primary focus of the Theme Study is on the most active period of the underground railroad activity, it is important to document related events which contribute to an understanding of this nationally significant, geographically-widespread enterprise. Several aspects of the history of American slavery, as well as categories of sites, not directly related to the underground railroad are still central to the understanding of it. Earlier resistance and antislavery actions are the base on which the underground railroad was built. Resistance to lifetime servitude began with the first Africans forcibly brought to the Western hemisphere in the 1500s, and resistance continued until the last emancipations in North America. Without this continued resistance, there would have been no need for the extensive legal codes which upheld property rights in human beings or for the brutal intimidation which always existed just beneath the surface of this coercive social system.
- Abolitionist Movement
- Lowance, Mason, ed. Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2000.
- Stauffer, John. The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
- Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press,1994.
- Barrow, Charles Kelley, ed., et al. Black Confederates. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 2001.
- Baumann, Roland M. The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal. Lorain,Ohio: The Bodnar Printing Company, 2003.
- Bigglestone, William E. They Stopped in Oberlin. Oberlin: Gertrude F. Jacobs Publication Fund, 2002.
- Britten, Thomas A. A Brief History of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.
- Brown, William Wells. The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 2003.
- Carpenter, Rev. Dr. Delores, ed. African American Heritage Hymnal. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001.
- Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Owen, Leslie Howard. The Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
- Historical Fiction
- Hart, A. (2003). Fires of Jubilee. New York: Alladin Paperbacks.
- Brown, William Wells. The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2001.
- Gates Jr., Henry Louis. Three Class African-American Novels. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
- McCray, Carrie Allen. Freedom’s Child: The Story of My Mother, A Confederate General’s Black Daughter.
- Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
- Narratives and Biographies
- Andrews, William L., ed. From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown. Colombia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
- Andrews, William L. and Henry Louis Gates Jr., ed. Slave Narratives. New York: The Library of America, 2000.
- Berlin, Ira, et. al. Remembering Slavery. New York: The New York Press, 1998.
- Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Michigan: ProQuest Company, 2003.
- Jefferson, Paul, ed. The Travels of William Wells Brown: Narrative of William W. Brown, Fugitive Slave and The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad. New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, Inc., 1991.
- Moses, Wilson Jeremiah, ed. Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s. University Park, Pennsylvania: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
- Yetman, Norman R., ed. Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2000.
- Yuval, Taylor. ed. I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives. Vol.1 and 2. Chicago, Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.
- Franklin, John, and Schweninger, Loren. ed Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Barret, T. (1993). Harper’s Ferry: The Story of John Brown’s Raid. Brookfield: Connecticut: The Millbrook Press.
- Brown, W. (1848). The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Books on Demand.
- Collier, C. and James L. Collier. (2000). Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War: 1831-1861. New York: Benchmarks Books.
- * Hagedorn, A. (2002). Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad.
- * Hudson, J. (2002). Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.
- Reger, J. (1997). Life in the South During the Civil War. San Diego: Lucent Books.
- * Sawyer, K. (1997). The Underground Railroad in American History. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers.
- Shadd, A. (2002). The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! Toronto: National Heritage Books.
- Stein, R.C. (1981). The Story of the Underground Railrod. Chicago: Childrens Press.
- * Wood, B. (1997). The Origin’s of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies. New York: Hill & Wong.
- Abrahams, Roger D. Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
- Brown, William Wells. The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968.
- Brown, William Wells. Clotel or The President’s Daughter. New York: M.E Sharp,1996.
- Brown, William Wells. The Negro in the American Rebellion, His Heroism and His Fidelity. Ann Arbor: ProQuest, 2003.
- Conyers, Jr., James L. A Structural Analysis of Enslavement in the African Diaspora. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.
- Finkelman, Paul, ed. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. New York: M.E. Sharp Inc., 2001.
- Horton, James Oliver. Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
- Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual representations of Slavery in England and America 1780-1865. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Picture Books
- Berleth, R. (1990). Samuel’s Choice. New York: Scholastic.
- Connelly, B. (1997). Follow the Drinking Gourd of the Underground Railroad. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Johnson, A. (1979). The Value of Helping: The Story of Harriet Tubman. La Jolla: Value Communications.
- Lawrence, J. (1968). Harriet and the Promised Land. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Monjo, F.N. (1970). The Drinking Gourd. New York: Harper & Row.
- Nelson, V. (2003). Almost to Freedom. New York: Scholastic, Inc.
- Ringgold, F. (1992). Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky. New York:Crown.
- Schroeder, A. (1996). Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.
- Welcome to Addy’s World 1864: Growing Up During America’s Civil War. (1999). Middleton, Wisconsin: Pleasant Company Publications.
- Williams, S. (1992). Working Cotton. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Wright, C. (1994). Journey to Freedom: A Story of the Underground Railroad. New York: Holiday House.