Underground Railroad: A Path to Freedom
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Primary Source Set
The Underground Railroad is an important part of our nation’s history; however, many of the fascinating and lesser known details regarding it are not included within many textbooks. This booklet will provide a window into the past through a variety of primary sources regarding the Underground Railroad. These primary sources consist of broadsides, reward posters, newspaper clippings, historical documents, sheet music, photographs and narratives pertaining to the Underground Railroad. These items are found within the digitized collections of the Library of Congress.
The Underground Railroad was a secret system developed to aid fugitive slaves on their escape to freedom. Involvement with the Underground Railroad was not only dangerous, but it was also illegal. So, to help protect themselves and their mission secret codes were created. The term Underground Railroad referred to the entire system, which consisted of many routes called lines. The free individuals who helped runaway slaves travel toward freedom were called conductors, and the fugitive slaves were referred to as cargo. The safe houses used as hiding places along the lines of the Underground Railroad were called stations. A lit lantern hung outside would identify these stations.
A Dangerous Path to Freedom
Traveling along the Underground Railroad was a long a perilous journey for fugitive slaves to reach their freedom. Runaway slaves had to travel great distances, many times on foot, in a short amount of time. They did this with little or no food and no protection from the slave catchers chasing them. Slave owners were not the only pursuers of fugitive slaves. In order to entice others to assist in the capture of these slaves, their owners would post reward posters offering payment for the capture of their property. If they were caught, any number of terrible things could happen to them. Many captured fugitive slaves were flogged, branded, jailed, sold back into slavery, or even killed.
Not only did fugitive slaves have the fear of starvation and capture, but there were also threats presented by their surroundings. While traveling for long periods of time in the wilderness, they would have to fend off animals wanting to kill and eat them, cross treacherous terrain, and survive severe temperatures. For the slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad, they were still in danger once they entered northern states. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 allowed and encouraged the capture of fugitive slaves due to the fact that they were seen as stolen property, rather than abused human beings.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 also outlawed the abetting of fugitive slaves. Their safety and freedom would not be reached until they entered into Canada. Not all slaves traveled north. There were also Underground Railroad lines that lead south en route for Mexico and the Caribbean.
One of the many fugitive slaves impacted by the Fugitive Slave Law was Anthony Burns. He was taken from his northern residence, arrested, and tried under this law in Boston, Massachusetts. His arrest spurred black and white abolitionists and citizens of Boston to riot and protest. After the trial, Burns was taken back to cruelty of the south which he thought he had escaped from. While he was enduring his return to slavery, abolitionists were working to raise funds and within a year of his trial they had enough money to buy his freedom. Library of Congress American Memory and America’s Library. Accessed 10.20.08
Frederick Douglass was another fugitive slave who escaped slavery. He escaped not on the Underground Railroad, but on a real train. He disguised himself as a sailor, but this was not enough. He needed to show proof that he was free, and since he was a runaway slave who did not have any “free papers” he borrowed a seaman’s protection certificate that stated a sailor was a citizen of the U.S. Luckily, the train conductor did not look closely at the papers, and Douglass gained his passage to freedom.
Unfortunately, not all runaway slaves made it to freedom. But, many of those who did manage to escape went on to tell their stories of flight from slavery and to help other slaves not yet free. Harriet Tubman, Henry Bibb, Anthony Burns, Addison White, Josiah Henson and John Parker all escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.
Henry “Box” Brown, another fugitive slave, escaped in a rather different way. He shipped himself in a three foot long by two and a half foot deep by two foot wide box, from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he was removed from the box, he came out singing.
Conductors & Abolitionists
Underground Railroad conductors were free individuals who helped fugitive slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. Conductors helped runaway slaves by providing them with safe passage to and from stations. They did this under the cover of darkness with slave catchers hot on their heels. Many times these stations would be located within their own homes and businesses. The act of harboring fugitive slaves put these conductors in grave danger; yet, they persisted because they believed in a cause greater than themselves, which was the freeing of thousands of enslaved human beings.
These conductors were comprised of a diverse group of people. They included people of different races, occupations and income levels. There were also former slaves who had escaped using the Underground Railroad and voluntarily returned to the lands of slavery, as conductors, to help free those still enslaved. Slaves were understood to be property; therefore, the freeing of slaves was viewed as stealing slave owners’ personal property. If a conductor was caught helping free slaves they would be fined, imprisoned, branded, or even hanged.
Jonathan Walker was a sea captain caught off the shore of Florida trying to transport fugitive slaves to freedom in the Bahamas. He was arrested, imprisoned and branded with the letter “S.S.” which stood for slave stealer. The abolitionist poet John Whittier paid tribute to Walker’s courageous acts in one of his poems saying: "Then lift that manly right hand, bold ploughman of the wave! Its branded palm shall prophesy, 'Salvation to the Slave!'"
Harriet Tubman, perhaps the most well-known conductor of the Underground Railroad, helped hundreds of runaway slaves escape to freedom. She never lost one of them along the way. As a fugitive slave herself, she was helped along the Underground Railroad by another famous conductor…William Still. He went on the write The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters…, a book which contains descriptions of fugitive slaves’ escape to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. John parker is yet another former slave who escaped and ventured back into slave states to help free others. He conducted one of the busiest sections of the Underground Railroad, transporting fugitive slaves across the Ohio River. His neighbor and fellow conductor, Reverend John Rankin, worked with him on the Underground Railroad. Both of their homes served as Underground Railroad stations.
Conductors of the Underground Railroad undoubtedly opposed slavery, and they were not alone. Abolitionists took action against slavery as well. The abolition movement began when individuals such as William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur and Lewis Tappan formed the American Anti-Slavery Society. The organization created the Declaration of Anti-Slavery in which they gave reasons for the construction of the society and its goals. The society distributed an annual almanac that included poems, drawings, essays and other abolitionist material.
Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a famous abolitionist. He published a newspaper called the North Star in which he voiced his goals for the abolishment of slavery. He also published another abolitionist paper called the Frederick Douglass Paper, as well as giving public speeches on issues of concern to abolitionists.
Susan B. Anthony was another well known abolitionist who spoke and wrote for the efforts to abolish slavery. She urged her audience to “make the slave’s case our own.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, provided the world with a vivid image of the hardships faced by slaves. Much of her book was based on the experiences of fugitive slave Josiah Henson.
Efforts of Abolitionists Telling Their Story: Fugitive Slave Narratives
Henry Bibb was born into slavery, in Kentucky during the year of 1815. He made many failed attempts to escape slavery; yet, he still had the courage and perseverance to continue in his fight for freedom after every capture and punishment. His perseverance paid off when he made a successful and much anticipated escape to the northern states and then on to Canada with the help of the Underground Railroad. The following is an excerpt from his narrative in which he discussed one of his many escapes and the challenges he had to overcome.
“In the fall or winter of 1837 I formed a resolution that I would escape, if possible, to Canada, for my Liberty. I commenced from that hour making preparations for the dangerous experiment of breading the chains that bound me as a slave. My preparation for this voyage consisted in the accumulation of a little money, perhaps not exceeding two dollars and fifty cents, and a suit which I had never been seen or known to wear before; this last was to avoid detection.
On the twenty-fifth of December, 1837, my long anticipated time had arrived when I was to put into operation my former resolution, which was to bolt for Liberty or consent to die a Slave. I acted upon the former, although I confess it to be one of the most self-defying acts of my whole life, to take leave of an affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure, with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes as she bid me a long farewell. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to suppress my feelings while taking leave of my little family.
Had Matilda known my intention at the time, it would not have been possible for me to have got away, and I might have this day been a slave. Not withstanding every inducement was held out to me to run away if I would be free, and the voice of liberty was thundering in my very soul, ‘Be free, oh, man! be free,’ I was struggling against a thousand obstacles which had clustered around my mind to bind my wounded spirit still in the dark prison of mental degradation. My strong attachments to friends and relatives, with all the love of home and birth-place which is so natural among the human family, twined about my heart and were hard to break away from. And withal, the fear of being killed, or captured and taken to the extreme South, to linger out my days in hopeless bondage on some cotton or sugar plantation, all combined to deter me. But I had count the cost, and was fully prepared to make the sacrifice. The time for fulfilling my pledge was then at hand. I must forsake friends and neighbors, wife and child, or consent to live and die a slave.”
“These kind friends gave me something to eat, and started me on my way to Canada, with a recommendation of a friend on my way. This was the commencement of what was called the under ground rail road to Canada. I walked with bold courage, trusting in the arm of Omnipotence; guided by the unchangeable North Star by night, and inspired by an elevated thought that I was fleeing from a land of slavery and oppression, bidding farewell to handcuffs, whips, thumb-screws and chains.
I travelled on until I had arrived at the place where I was directed to call on an Abolitionist, but I made no stop: so great were my fears of being pursued by the pro-slavery hunting dogs of the South. I prosecuted my journey vigorously for nearly forty-eight hours without food or rest, struggling against external difficulties such as no one can imagine who has never experienced the same: not knowing what moment I might be captured while travelling among strangers, through cold and fear, breasting the north winds, being thinly clad, pelted by the snow storms through the dark hours of the night, and not a house in which I could enter to shelter me from the storm.”
This is only one of the many narratives written by fugitive slaves. Another former slave who was well known for her efforts to end slavery was Sojourner Truth. She too along with Josiah Henson, J.D. Green and many others wrote narratives that shared their experiences. Their stories of strength and freedom provide much insight to the time in which they lived. Perhaps, so many fugitive slaves chose to write down their experiences to help others understand their trials and tribulations; or maybe they did this to help individuals learn from the mistakes of the past, in hopes of creating a better future.
In Frederick Douglass’s book entitled Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, he stated his intention for writing his narrative: “Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastning the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging my self anew to the sacred cause, --I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass.”
Library of Congress American Memory and Exhibits. Accessed 10.20.08
Teaching with Primary Sources
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- Scrutinizing and Supplementing Children’s Trade Books about Child Labor
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Facilitating Students’ Historical Scrutiny of Credibility within Slave Narratives
The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies (Online)
Trade books’ Historical Representation of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Helen Keller
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Examining the Representation of Slavery within Children’s Literature
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Cindy's guest post on the Library's Teaching with the Library of Congress blog
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