Black History Month: Exploring the Underground Railroad

As part of Black History Month, the Daniel Island Library is presenting a series of historical lectures. Historian and museum curator Ron Roth gave the second presentation in the series titled “Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the African American Quest for Freedom.”

What was the Underground Railroad?

The “Underground Railroad” was a secret route to freedom for slaves in the 19th Century. The pedestrian “Railroad” was made up of several different corridors or trunks that connected plantations of different southern states to the nearest free states in the north. Abolitionists and other supporters acted as conductors, helping slaves to make their way, and stationmasters who hid the slaves in their houses along the way.

How did the Underground Railroad come about?

Mr. Roth takes us on a painful journey back in time: “On the eve of the Civil War there were four million slaves in the Deep South. The tyranny of slavery led slaves to find freedom. Struggle to find freedom. Consider the conditions on plantations,” urges Roth. “While there have been attempts to spin plantation owners as paternalistic beneficiaries - the reality was much much different. Hard work, sun up to sun down, brutal whippings, torrid heat, poor food, illnesses. Women were often cruelly beaten because they refused the outrageous demands of their wicked overseers.”

Roth describes the heinous situation of slaves sold at market. Slaves were dressed up in shirts and pants, lined up from the shortest to the tallest and had to suffer numerous indignities. Physical inspections could be particularly humiliating. Men were examined all over their bodies for lash marks. A lot of lash marks could mean you were a rebellious slave. Women were put through the most degrading intrusions of their bodies to determine their potential for child bearing.

“But the thing that’s always struck me hardest,” points out Roth, “possibly the most devastating thing perhaps for the black families was the issue of being separated from their loved ones.”

Roth describes the situation: “Babes were torn from their mothers and sold. Parents were separated and sent to distant parts of the country.”

Another factor that set the wheels of the the Underground Railroad in motion? “Sadly, one of the generators was our own Constitution,” points out Roth. “It made slavery legal.”

While the northern states were against slavery, the government unfortunately sided with southern states in support of the practice of slavery.

Many of the northern states began to pass their own laws to free slaves in their states. Between 1780-1786, laws were passed for the emancipation of slaves (e.g. The Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780). While there was a provision in these laws to ensure that slaves’ freedom in northern states would be gradual (and thereby creating a more manageable transition from their status as slaves to “free” servants), the provision insisted that slaves born after 1780 would gain freedom at age 28.

These new laws, while not ideal, offered hope of freedom. Word got around the plantations of the South. “If I go north, I might have a chance to be free.” That started this push that became the Underground Railroad.

What happened to the slaves who tried to run away?

The Federal government gave plantation owners the legal right to go after their slaves. Slave re-capture was big business, especially after the “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850” supported fines of $10,000 for helping or hiding a slave. Ads were placed in newspapers, some offering hefty rewards, for help in finding runaway slaves. Law enforcement officials were incentivized to step in and help. Reprisals could be brutal: Slaves who were recaptured were severely punished and those who helped the slaves were swiftly killed, their heads left to roll in the road as a warning.

Who were some of the brave people who helped manage the success of the “Railroad”?

Black and white, they worked together in the quest for human freedom. They helped runaway slaves journey to freedom in the northern states, Canada, Florida and Mexico (parts of which were still owned by Spain, which did not believe in slavery; Florida was a shorter route for slaves in Georgia, while Mexico was the only option for slaves living in Texas). Just a few of the scores of brave men and women who took part are mentioned below:

Harriet Tubman:  One of the Railroad’s most celebrated conductors, Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland in 1822, but escaped to freedom in Philadelphia as a young woman. Tubman bravely devoted her life to helping other slaves make their way to freedom, often risking her own safety. Tubman also served as a spy for the Union Army.

Thomas Garrett:  a Quaker in Delaware, sheltered and aided slaves for nearly 40 years. In 1848 he was caught helping a slave family get to Philadelphia and fined $5,400.

A resilient soul, Garrett replied to the court: “I always feared losing what little I possessed [but] now that you have relieved me, I will go home and put another story on my house so that I can accommodate more of God’s poor.”

William Still: A “conductor” who helped slaves reach Philadelphia, Still kept detailed records of the slaves’ experiences. Still also housed many slaves in his Philadelphia home. He kept detailed accounts about the slaves he helped and published a book based on the information.

Levi and Catherine Coffin: Quakers and Abolitionists, the Coffins helped approximately 3,000 slaves, often hiding them in their Ohio house.

Isaac Hopper: Helped conduct on the Philadelphia “trunk” of the Railroad and protected slaves as well as freed blacks from slave kidnappers during the first half of the 19th century.

What jobs did these men and women of the URR perform?

Conductors helped the slave families travel to safety during the night, from one “safe house” to the next. Station masters hid slaves in their homes.

How many slaves found freedom through the URR?

Sadly, records reveal that while there were about four million slaves before the Civil War, only about 20,000 slaves made it to freedom. It was a long, arduous and dangerous journey. Many slaves didn’t make the trip. And many others, who did successfully reach the north, were ultimately captured and returned to their owners. But for those slaves who did successfully complete their journeys north, their freedom was more than well worth the struggle.

About the presenter

Ron Roth is an historian for the Gettysburg National Military Park and Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, PA. He is also an independent curator and consultant responsible for the scripts for two permanent exhibitions in Pennsylvania: Central Pennsylvania African American Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania, and the Director of the Museum of Nebraska. Roth also wrote the script for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad in central Pennsylvania. In addition, he has curated and designed a permanent exhibition on the history of the “Beaufort Volunteer Artillery: Guardians of the Lowcountry Since 1776” for the Historic Beaufort Foundation in Beaufort, South Carolina. Roth was a historian for the Gettysburg National Military Park and a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg.

Mr. Roth received his bachelor’s degree in history from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, and a Masters-At-Teaching degree in Museum Studies from George Washington University, Washington D.C. He currently lives in Bluffton, SC.

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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