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Sat, 06.30.1787

The Underground Railroad, “Free at Last”

The Underground Railroad is celebrated on this date in 1787.  This organization helped escaped African slaves from the Antebellum South on their journey to freedom in the North and Canada.

It is believed that it started and got its name when Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker, organized a system for hiding and aiding escaped slaves. Opponents of slavery, abolitionist, allowed their homes, called stations, to be used as places where escaped slaves were provided with food, shelter, and money.  The various routes went through 14 northern states and Canada.

It is estimated that by 1850, around 3,000 people worked on the Underground Railroad.  Some of the best known people who provided help on the route included William Still, Gerrit Smith, Salmon Chase, David Ruggle, Thomas Garrett, William Purvis, Jane Grey Swisshelm, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Lucretia Mott, Charles Langston, Levi Coffin, and Susan B. Anthony.

The Underground Railroad also had used volunteers known as conductors who went to the south and helped guide slaves to safety.  One of the most important of these was a former slave, Harriet Tubman. She made over 20 secret trips to the South, during which she led more than 1000 slaves to freedom. During the Civil War, with the Union army traveling to South Carolina, she served as liaison between the soldiers and newly freed Blacks, moving them towards self-sufficiency.   On the night of June 2, 1863 Tubman guided a troop of 150 Black soldiers of the Second South Carolina battalion on the Combahee River. The plan was to liberate as many slaves by catching slaveholders by surprise. The attack became known as the Combahee River Raid and liberated more than 750 slaves.  Tubman was considered such a threat to the slave system that plantation owners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture.

Underground Railroad Stations were usually about 20 miles apart. Conductors used covered wagons or carts with false bottoms to carry slaves from one station to another. Runaway slaves usually hid during the day and traveled at night. Some of those involved notified runaways of their stations by brightly lit candles in a window or by lanterns positioned in the front yard.  By the middle of the 19th century, it was estimated that over 50,000 slaves had escaped from the South using the Underground Railroad.

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