Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias

The United States experienced drastic changes in its political, geographic, social, and economic landscapes during the antebellum era. Chief among national issues was ‘the peculiar institution’ of slavery. The Underground Railroad, and the wider abolitionist movement from which it sprang, were pivotal and monumental occurrences in U.S. history during the era. The antebellum era witnessed the rise and fall of the American Colonization Society, the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the wide distribution of fiery anti-slavery literature such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Aunt Sally. Fueled by the religious ideology of the Second Great Awakening, the abolitionist movement advocated for a range of reforms related to slavery. At one end were radical abolitionists such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass who called for an immediate end to slavery, and at the other end were moderate abolitionists such as those who established the Liberty Party. African Americans took the advocacy of freedom into their own hands. David Walker and Maria Stewart issued stirring anti-slavery appeals. Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb, and Sojourner Truth became mainstay speakers among abolitionist gatherings.

The covert activities of the Underground Railroad used a variety of means to achieve its goal of safe delivery of enslaved people to freedom. ‘Stations’ along the Underground Railroad consisted of homes, churches, schoolhouses, businesses, barns, caves, wagons, boats, and other hiding places. Freedom seekers found shelter, food, temporary security, and information at these stops. The purpose of the ‘station’ was to house freedom seekers for a short period of time, often in the daylight hours, to allow them to rest and to confuse any party that was trying to track them.

‘Conductors’ or ‘agents’ that owned the various ‘stations’ defied the laws to aid freedom seekers along the Underground Railroad. In many communities, to be considered an abolitionist was cause of ostracism, harassment, surveillance, and even violence. Maintaining a sense of secretary and ambiguity was crucial to the success of freedom seekers securing liberty after traversing the Underground Railroad. In Detroit, for example, members of Second Baptist Church such as George DeBaptiste, William Lambert, and William Webb, were ‘conductors’ who aided freedom seekers to Canada by way of the Detroit River. These and other ‘conductors’ organized vigilance committees in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, aggressively protecting freedom seekers, or ‘passengers’, and ensuring that they were not imprisoned, prosecuted, or falsely represented. In spite of the numerous abolitionists and ‘conductors’, many freedom seekers traveled the Underground Railroad alone. Running away from slavery out of desperation, they were willing to do anything to escape the horrors of slavery. The majority of freedom seekers were men between the age of 20 and 30 years old; however, occasionally groups fled together with women and children. Larger groups were at a higher risk of getting caught and being re-enslaved.

Top Image: Photographs, prints, and ephemera from the Gladstone collection Library of Congress

Bottom Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-ds-00605]

“If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs.”

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

© 2012 Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. All rights reserved. 315 East Warren Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201 | (313) 494-5800 | info@chwmuseum.org

This program was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural Program.