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The Underground Railroad – Many Still Waiting for the Train

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

We have often heard the phrase that there is nothing new under the sun. Each day we reinvent a thought, an invention, a strategy that those who have gone before us, either attempted to build, to dream or to create. So when the courageous, strong, intelligent and fearless Harriet Tubman took up the armor to build that Underground Railroad, she did not try to recreate the wheel. She simply copied the system that white America had set in place to transport travelers from one place to another… the train. With its code words and a proven mechanism in place, Harriet  Tubman used the same components of the actual railroad to move slaves off the plantations and to freedom.

“…it  was not an actual train, but  the  prototype for the most successful tool of escape in history for enslaved blacks.”

– Dr. Teresa Taylor Williams

 

It is disturbing, no quite alarming, that there are individuals who remain ignorant to the Underground  Railroad and are unaware that it  was not an actual train, but  the  prototype for the most successful tool of escape in history for enslaved blacks. Ms. Tubman was responsible for freeing thousands of slaves. In celebration of Black History Month, I hope you will read the work of a young man, Revisiting the Underground Railroad, by Jordan Christian, below, who reminds us of how the Underground Railroad changed and saved lives of African American people. And never, ever forget from whence we have come. We are not building underground railroads to escape our captors anymore, but there are still thousands of our people who are in need of  an escape… from poverty, from drugs, from  homelessness and illness and still waiting for that train, Lest we not forget that those of us who have been blessed with better can recreate this same train for someone in need.

-Dr. Teresa Taylor Williams, Owner & Publisher, New York Trend

 

 

Revisiting the Underground Railroad

By Jordan Christian

The era of slavery can be referred to as the worst period of time in American History. Slavery is “the state of a

Jordan Christian

Jordan Christian

person who is a chattel of another.”[1] This practice forcibly withdrew Africans from their Motherland of Africa and brought them to America. Many slaves tried to escape from this horrible environment. Some slaves succeeded and others failed. The Underground Railroad was an important movement during slavery because it helped oppressed slaves to seek freedom elsewhere. Many slaves traveled through the Underground Railroad in their escape to freedom; many survived the journey while others were captured and returned to their slave masters.  There were places along the Underground Railroad where slaves could stop for shelter or seek assistance from abolitionists or free slaves. Without this type of help the escape from slavery would have been unsuccessful. The Underground Railroad had a significant impact on Slavery because it established a communication network that allowed many slaves to escape to freedom.

The Underground Railroad not only had an impact on slavery but it was the impetus to other movements that later helped change Americas view of African Americans.

Pre-1800’s, before the Underground Railroad, slaves didn’t travel north for freedom, because there was still slavery in the North. The escape North was difficult if one was enslaved deep in the South. Instead of heading north, some slaves escaped to Florida because the Indians controlled this area. The Indians in Florida welcomed the escaped slaves because they had great knowledge of how white people acted and of the Southern land. Many blacks would become black Seminoles. There were some free blacks that lived in the North prior to the 1800’s and had somewhat of an active role in society.[2] During the Revolutionary War, some slaves chose to fight for the Americans, while others sided with the opposing party, the British. As slavery began to grow, many slaves wanted to escape this oppression and sought freedom on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was created in 1830’s. This was not a Railroad that traveled underground. The name was derived from the way the slaves were transported. It was similar to how a railroad works. The Underground Railroad used many codes. For example, the network offered shelter, employment, or help to slaves as they continued on their journeys North. There was the Conductor- he would lead the slaves to the North. Along the way the slaves would stop and take breaks at stations or depots. These could be considered rest stops.[3] This process was very dangerous for many reasons. First there was the Fugitive Slave Act, which was a  “federal law that allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves within the territory of the United States. Enacted by Congress in 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act authorized local governments to seize and return escaped slaves to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight. Widespread resistance to the 1793 law later led to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which added further provisions regarding runaways and levied even harsher punishments for interfering in their capture. According to History.com, the Fugitive Slave Acts were among the most controversial laws of the early 19th century, and many Northern states passed special legislation in an attempt to circumvent them.”[4] This instilled great fear into the slaves. The consequences for escaping could be very severe, sometimes even death.

The Underground Railroad used many codes.

(It was a) network (that) offered shelter, employment, or help to slaves as they continued on their journeys North.

There were many people during this time that had major roles in the Underground Railroad. First there was Harriet Tubman. Harriet was a free slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad.  She was known for taking at least 15 trips to help rescue slaves. Harriet was a hero because she was brave enough to help others slaves that she didn’t know to escape. Harriet was not a nurturer she was tough. Always armed with a gun she wasn’t afraid to use it against a slave that was afraid to continue on or from someone trying to attack the group. It is estimated that she led several hundred slaves to freedom. During her journeys she was able to develop a communication network.  This network helped support escaped slaves seek freedom by providing assistance in their escape.  For example, the network provided shelter, employment, or help to continue on their journey North. Her efforts led her to become a Union spy. With the skills she gained from working on the Underground Railroad, it was only fitting for her to receive this position. In this role she was able to spy on the Confederates.

There was also an influential group of abolitionist from Pennsylvania who helped slaves to find freedom. There were Thomas Garret, Dr. Fussell and William Still all from Pennsylvania.  Thomas Garrett was a Quaker and a radical Abolitionist who worked along side Harriet Tubman. Garret lived in Pennsylvania where the Quaker population was very large. Quakers played a major role in the Underground Railroad. They believed that slavery was wrong and helped many slaves escape to freedom.[5] Garrett used his house as a rest stop for slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad. Another Quaker abolitionist, Dr. Bartholomew Fussell set up a Sunday school for African American children. This was a significant milestone because African Americans were not supposed to be able to read or write. Dr. Fussell was known for having one of the largest rest stops along the Underground Railroad.  Teaching the children to read and write gave them another method of communication.  William Still, a free African American, helped many slaves after they arrived in Philadelphia. Still would either help plan their trips to Canada or he would help the other slaves that decided to stay in Philadelphia seek employment and a place to stay. “William Still estimates about 2,000 escaping slaves passed through his home”.[6]Still was brilliant because he recorded the events that happened during this time. After the Civil War he published the events he recorded from the Underground Railroad. This is one of the excerpts written in Still’s book: “Wm. is about 40, dark chestnut, medium size, very intelligent, member of the Methodist Church, under the charge of the Rev. Mr. Jones. His owner’s name was Turner & Whitehead.  with whom he had served for 20 yr’s in the capacity of “Packer”. He had been treated with mildness in some respects, though had been very tightly worked, allowed only $1.50 per week to board & clothe himself and family upon. Consequently he was obliged to make up the balance as he could. Had been sold once one sister had been sold also. He was prompted to escape because he wanted his liberty—was not satisfied with not having the  privilege of providing for his family, His value $1000–. Paid $240– for himself, wife & child & Mrs. Bell.”[7] The recorded events helped give some detail of what the slaves had experienced while they were enslaved. It also gave a face to the oppressed. It helped to tell the story of what actually occurred in the South.  It painted an image of the harsh inhumane tactics used during slavery. Last, there was Samuel Burris a conductor on the Underground Railroad.  He was not as successful in helping slaves escape as Harriet Tubman. He traveled to the South numerous times to bring slaves to Delaware and Pennsylvania. On his last journey he was caught and put in prison for several months and then sold back into slavery for 7 years. Fortunately, he was sold to an abolitionist who set him free and he never returned to slavery. He was lucky because most conductors that were caught were returned back to slavery.

            The Underground Railroad was more than just a way to free slaves from oppression. Harriet Tubman created a communication network of supporters. The network helped escaped slaves find assistance on their journey to freedom.   This network had a significant impact on slavery because it helped to establish a safe route for escapees to travel from the South to as far North as Canada. Without this network most escaped slaves would have either been caught or killed.

            It is hard to imagine today in a world where we have so many communication devices available that Harriet Tubman and the other abolitionists were able to create such an effective method of communication that helped free thousands of slave. The Underground Railroad not only had an impact on slavery but it was the impetus to other movements that later helped change Americas view of African Americans. REFEENCES:”Black Seminoles — Gullahs Who Escaped From Slavery.” Black Seminoles — Gullahs Who Escaped From Slavery. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://www.yale.edu/glc/gullah/07.htm>.

“Harriet Tubman Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://www.biography.com/people/harriet-tubman-9511430>.

“Pages From an Underground Railroad Conductor’s Diary Preserve Fugitive Slaves’ Stories.” Slate Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/09/10/william_still_his_diary_recorded_details_of_slaves_escaping_on_the_underground.html>.

“Pathways to Freedom | Underground Railroad Library | People.” Pathways to Freedom | Underground Railroad Library | People. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. <http://pathways.thinkport.org/library/people.cfm>.

“Fugitive Slave Acts.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <http://www.history.com/topics/fugitive-slave-acts>.

“Slavery.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slavery>.

 

 

 

 

 

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