In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, one of the newly formed 13 American Colonies. They had been kidnapped from their homes and were forced to work on tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations from Maryland and Virginia all the way to Georgia. According to the law, they had no rights and were not free.
Escaping to freedom was anything but easy for an enslaved person. It required courage, wit, and determination. Many fled by themselves or in small numbers, often without food, clothes, or money. Leaving behind family members, they traveled hundreds of miles across unknown lands and rivers by foot, boat, or wagon. To be captured would mean being sent back to the plantation, where they would be whipped, beaten, or killed.
Not everyone believed that slavery should be allowed and wanted to aid these fugitives, or runaways, in their escape to freedom. As more and more people secretly offered to help, a freedom movement emerged. It became known as the Underground Railroad.
How the Underground Railroad started
Americans had been helping enslaved people escape since the late 1700s, and by the early 1800s, the secret group of individuals and places that many fugitives relied on became known as the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was not underground, and it wasn’t an actual train. It was a network of people, both whites and free Blacks, who worked together to help runaways from slaveholding states travel to states in the North and to the country of Canada, where slavery was illegal.
No one knows exactly where the term Underground Railroad came from. “Underground” implies secrecy; “railroad” refers to the way people followed certain routes—with stops along the way—to get to their destination. The phrase wasn’t something that one person decided to name the system but a term that people started using as more and more fugitives escaped through this network.
The operators of the Underground Railroad were abolitionists, or people who opposed slavery. Many were members of organized groups that helped runaways, such as the Quaker religion and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Often called “agents,” these operators used their homes, churches, barns, and schoolhouses as “stations.” There, fugitives could stop and receive shelter, food, clothing, protection, and money until they were ready to move to the next station.
A dangerous journey
The Underground Railroad was secret. Nothing was written down about where to go or who would help. So once enslaved people decided to make the journey to freedom, they had to listen for tips from other enslaved people, who might have heard tips from other enslaved people. If they were lucky, they traveled with a conductor, or a person who safely guided enslaved people from station to station.
Whether alone or with a conductor, the journey was dangerous. Slave catchers with guns and dogs roamed the area looking for runaways to capture. People who spotted the fugitives might alert police—or capture the runaways themselves for a reward. The fugitives were often hungry, cold, and scared for their lives.
To give themselves a better chance of escape, enslaved people had to be clever. For instance, fugitives sometimes fled on Sundays because reward posters could not be printed until Monday to alert the public; others would run away during the Christmas holiday when the white plantation owners wouldn’t notice they were gone. The fugitives also often traveled by night—under the cover of darkness—following the North Star.
Once they were on their journey, they looked for safe resting places that they had heard might be along the Underground Railroad. A hiding place might be inside a person’s attic or basement, a secret part of a barn, the crawl space under the floors in a church, or a hidden compartment in the back of a wagon. At these stations, they’d receive food and shelter; then the agent would tell them where to go next.
To avoid capture, fugitives sometimes used disguises and came up with clever ways to stay hidden. One bold escape happened in 1849 when Henry “Box” Brown was packed and shipped in a three-foot-long box with three air holes drilled in. After traveling along the Underground Railroad for 27 hours by wagon, train, and boat, Brown was delivered safely to agents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Agents of change
Runaway slaves couldn’t trust just anyone along the Underground Railroad. Fortunately, people were willing to risk their lives to help them. Many were ordinary people, farmers, business owners, ministers, and even former enslaved people.
In 1826, Levi Coffin, a religious Quaker who opposed slavery, moved to Indiana. By chance he learned that he lived on a route along the Underground Railroad. Coffin and his wife, Catherine, decided to make their home a station. More than 3,000 slaves passed through their home heading north to Canada.
Frederick Douglass escaped slavery from Maryland in 1838 and became a well-known abolitionist, writer, speaker, and supporter of the Underground Railroad. He hid runaways in his home in Rochester, New York, and helped 400 fugitives travel to Canada.
Another Underground Railroad operator was William Still, a free Black business owner and abolitionist movement leader. By day he worked as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, but at night he secretly aided fugitives. He raised money and helped hundreds of enslaved people escape to the North, but he also knew it was important to tell their stories.
That’s why Still interviewed the runaways who came through his station, keeping detailed records of the individuals and families, and hiding his journals until after the Civil War. Then in 1872, he self-published his notes in his book, The Underground Railroad. It’s one of the clearest accounts of people involved with the Underground Railroad.
The most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in 1849. Determined to help others, Tubman returned to her former plantation to rescue family members. Later she started guiding other fugitives from Maryland. Tubman made 13 trips and helped 70 enslaved people travel to freedom. William Still even provided funding for several of Tubman’s rescue trips.
Fugitive slave laws
Americans helped enslaved people escape even though the U.S. government had passed laws making this illegal. In 1793, Congress passed the first federal Fugitive Slave Law. This law gave local governments the right to capture and return escapees, even in states that had outlawed slavery. Plus, anyone caught helping runaway slaves faced arrest and jail.
But the law often wasn’t enforced in many Northern states where slavery was not allowed, and people continued to assist fugitives. Politicians from Southern slaveholding states did not like that and pressured Congress to pass a new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 that was much harsher.
This law increased the power of Southerners to reclaim their fugitives, and a slave catcher only had to swear an oath that the accused was a runaway—even if the Black person was legally free. So slave catchers began kidnapping any Black person for a reward. No place in America was safe for Black people. Many enslaved and free Blacks fled to Canada to escape the U.S. government’s laws.
But the 1850 law only inspired abolitionists to help fugitives more. Widespread opposition sparked riots and revolts. In 1851, a group of angry abolitionists stormed a Boston, Massachusetts, courthouse to break out a runaway from jail. Other rescues happened in New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
It wasn’t until June 28, 1864—less than a year before the Civil War ended—that both Fugitive Slave Acts were finally repealed by Congress.
The Underground Railroad successfully moved enslaved people to freedom despite the laws and people who tried to prevent it. Exact numbers don’t exist, but it’s estimated that between 25,000 and 50,000 enslaved people escaped to freedom through this network.
The Underground Railroad was a social movement that started when ordinary people joined together to make a change in society. It’s an example of how people, regardless of their race or economic status, united for a common cause.
As the late Congressman John Lewis said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” That’s why people today continue to work together and speak out against injustices to ensure freedom and equality for all people.