The Underground Railroad

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Photo Essay

Charles T. Webber's 1893 Work <i>The Underground Railroad</i>

In truth, the Underground Railroad bears slight resemblance to the romantic image so commonly ascribed to it. Far from a well-organized network of safe houses capable of spiriting any willing slave away from the farthest reaches of bondage, the "railroad" was almost exclusively used by slaves in border and near-border states such as Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee. The dearth of antislavery sympathizers coupled with the potential for harsh legal—and physical—retribution rendered escape from the cotton plantations of the Deep South much more risky, and therefore, unlikely. Rather, the Underground Railroad was located almost exclusively in the North, and was at best a disorganized patchwork of whites and free blacks scrambling to provide temporary asylum. In some cases, particularly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, runaways could scarcely stop at all before reaching Canada.

As it greatly expanded the role of the government in apprehending runaways, the Fugitive Slave Law was predictably received with horror by abolitionists. In some ways, however, the new law may have brought Underground Railroad collaborators "above ground." In cities such as Boston and Oberlin, Ohio, vigilance committees were formed expressly to violate the legislation. In these cities, abolitionists—many black and some white—such as Robert Purvis and Lewis Hayden publicly vowed to abet fugitive slaves; Hayden is perhaps the most famous of all "vigilantes," having participated in at least four attempts to physically free slaves recovered by local authorities.

The Underground Railroad's popular depiction is undoubtedly a legacy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestselling 1852 antislavery novel that includes a daring Railroad-aided escape. The secretive nature of the network and its allies and the illiteracy of escaped slaves have left few primary sources detailing the exact workings of the effort. (Even Frederick Douglass, perhaps the Underground Railroad's most literate runaway, refused to mention specifics in his autobiography, fearing exposure.) Black Philadelphia abolitionist and businessman William Still's 1872 compendium, The Underground Railroad, is considered a respected source of information, but aside from the autobiographies of prominent white abolitionists such as Isaac Hopper and Levi Coffin, firsthand testimony is scarce.

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