The Underground Railroad Essay
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was an important element in the fight for and promotion of freedom for blacks enslaved within the United States during the 19th century. However, in order to understand its importance to the development of U. S. society it is necessary to understand its historical and contextual basis.
Leading off from the Mexican-American war which ended in 1848 there was increasing tension between Americans living in the northern section of the United States and those living in the south particularly over the issue of slavery (Epps, 2004). Those in the North had long demonstrated their intolerance for the continuance of slave practices in the Union and those in the South had long expressed sentiments that the practice of slavery would continue. This variance in viewpoint soon led to the North-South divide which also took on a strongly political aspect.
Blacks in the South, jealous of their counterparts in the North and craving freedom from a lifetime of slavery, had long been exploiting this variance in viewpoint with regard to slave since the 1780s by finding opportunities to escape their plantations in the South and find refuge in the North or in Canada. This practice kept increasing as the divide between the North and South widened.
Run-away slaves were often quite welcomed in the North and some sympathizers, beginning with the Quakers, assisted them in their escape. The practice of helping slaves cross over into the North and Canada was figuratively referred to as the Underground Railroad or the Liberty line. The literal Underground Railroad was a network of safe havens (Hicks, Montequin & Hicks, 2000, p. 27) in the form of safe houses, churches and shelters (Anonymous, 2003, p. 10) to which safes running away could turn to facilitating their onward progress to the North, which represented freedom.
The network of safe havens stretched from the states in the South to as far as Canada (Hicks, Montequin & Hicks, 2000). The concept of this network as a railroad is evident in the codes that those involved used to refer to various components of the movement. Slaves that were running away were referred to as passengers, persons who were guiding them along the different routes were called conductors and the places at which they stopped were named stations. Thus the Underground Railroad was not a physical place or space but a movement aimed at liberating blacks from slavery.
Numerous individuals collaborated in making this movement into the success it is now proclaimed to have had. Some estimates are that about 30, 000 blacks were able to escape via the Underground Railroad (Anonymous, 2000, p. 10) and still others put the figure at twice as much.
Though the precise numbers are not known it is still very evident that the work of the individuals involved in the Underground Railroad movement was quite effective in bringing many blacks out of a lifetime of slavery. As has been noted before the movement began with the work of the Quakers. Over the lifetime of the Underground Railroad countless other individuals, the majority of whom were black but including whites and women, were involved in the process.
One of the names most notably associated with the Underground Railroad is Harriet Tubman. She had herself been a slave when she took the opportunity, in 1849, to head north along the Underground Railroad. She subsequently became actively involved in helping other blacks escape slavery. It is reported that she made a total of nineteen round trips between the North and South bringing to freedom approximately 300 African slaves (Chism, 2005, p. 47).
The persons who facilitated the slaves moving between safe houses on the Underground Railroad, were putting themselves at considerable legal risks and thus activities had to be carried out as clandestinely as possible. There were laws designed and implemented specifically to curb the rate of assistance that escaped slaves were given in the North.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 gave owners the power to retrieve their slaves from whatever state they escape to, even in the North. This act proved to be unsuccessful so it was later reinforced with additional provisions in 1850. Under the new act persons were obligated to return runaway slaves to their owners and law officials in all states were mandated to upkeep this law and participate in active slave recovery (Williams-Myers, 2005).
With these stringent legal conditions it was indeed with fear and trepidation that many slaves took on the challenge of running for the North. The efforts made by the conductors, the keepers in the safe houses and all who facilitated the journey, are indeed commendable since they reached out to humanity without regarding person safety.
Several states northern states, as a result of the large genesis of African Americans into the North, soon became de jure slave settlements. In Mid-West states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan as well as in Northeast states such as Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine (Sayers, 2004, p. 437) large numbers of newly escaped blacks took up permanent residence and began to make a life in freedom. The Underground Railroad indeed represents not only the struggles towards emancipation but also, according to Williams-Myers (2005) “a moral challenge to an immoral mindset”
Epps, Garrett. (2004, Summer). The Antebellum Political Background of the Fourteenth Amendment. Law and Contemporary Problems, 67(3), 175-211.
Williams-Myers, A.J. (2005, Jul). Some notes on the extent of New York City’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, 29(2), 73.
Sayers, D. O. (2004). The Underground Railroad Reconsidered. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 28(3), 435-443.
Hicks, B., Montequin, L. & Hicks, J. (2000, Jan). Learning about our community: From the underground railroad to school lunch. Primary Voices K – 6, 8(3), 26-33.
Chism, K. (2005, Mar). Harriet Tubman: Spy, veteran, and widow. OAH Magazine of History, 47-51.
Anonymous. (2003, Feb 13). Researchers to study Natchez’s role in Underground Railroad. Black Issues in Higher Education, 19(26), 10.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 19 March 2017