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The Underground Railroad

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The Underground Railroad

Despite the name, the Underground Railroad was not really a railroad. The Underground Railroad refers to the attempt to assist people held in bondage in the south of North America to escape from slavery. It was not a fluke that this organization was called the Underground Railroad. Steam railroads had just materialized and the terms used to describe the people who helped and the fugitives were related to the railroad. Fugitive slaves were called "parcels" and "passengers", the helpers were the "conductors", the people who provided their homes as refuge were called "stationmasters," and the homes were referred to as "depots" or "stations".

The elimination of slavery had been a concern for anti-slavery advocates since the start of slavery. The first abolitionist society was organized in 1775, in Pennsylvania. From then on abolitionists actively tried to free slaves and notify the public about the evil of slavery. Eventually, individual anti-slavery advocates directly assisted in fugitive escapes. Soon advocates became aware of the others who were also helping and this is how the secret organization was formed.

The Underground Railroad was mainly active from 1830 to 1860 and developed in non-compliance of the Fugitive Slave Acts. The United States forbids any efforts to slow down the capture of runaway slaves. A stronger version of this law was passed in 1850: Fugitives could not testify on their own behalf, nor were they allowed a trial by jury. Heavy penalties were imposed on federal marshals who refused to enforce the law. Individuals who helped slaves escape were fined and put in jail. The laws, known as the Fugitive Slave Acts, were so difficult, that a reaction occurred: The number of abolitionists increased, the function of the Underground Railroad became more efficient, and new personal-freedom laws were passed in many Northern states. The acts were repealed in 1864.

Assistance was provided mainly by free blacks, including Harriet Tubman, and goodhearted people, church leaders, and abolitionists. Its existence produced support for the antislavery cause and convinced Southerners that the North would never allow slavery to remain accepted. Famous conductors of the Underground Railroad included James Fairfield, a white abolitionist who went into the Deep South and rescued enslaved African Americans by posing as a slave trader. In 1849, Harriet Tubman was a slave and escaped from her master in Bucktown, Maryland, took the train and became known as "Moses" to people, when she made many trips to the South and helped deliver at least 300 captives to freedom. African American abolitionist, John Parker frequently ventured to Kentucky and Virginia and helped transport hundreds of runaways across the Ohio River by boat. African American abolitionists Levi Coffin, who was the President of the Railroad, William Still, Robert Purvis, and David Ruggles, also helped free slaves.

Many fugitives who escaped to the North and Canada received assistance along the way from those who were involved in the Underground Railroad. By the early 19th century, the organization became so successful, that it is estimated, that between 1810 and 1850, 100,000 slaves escaped from the slavery through the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad went through many large cities, like Washington, New York City and Boston. Most slaves stopped at cities near the Great Lakes or in Canada. Some of those cities in Canada were Montreal, Ontario and Collingwood. Ohio and Pennsylvania each had many cities that were the final stop for slaves. Along the path that the Underground Railroad followed were some of the stations that included, The Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House in Odessa, Delaware. It was built in 1783, and a church of many Quakers in the town. The Appoquinimink Fiends Meeting Place still stands today. Another station was, The Oakley Cabin, the colonial manor house, which is now gone, was home to Colonel Richard Brooke, the "fighting Quaker" of the Revolutionary War. The cabin was believed to have been constructed during the early 1800's.One of the most important stations consisted of St. James AME Zion. The church is located in a community that was an important transfer point for slaves fleeing to Canada. Famous leaders in the Underground Railroad are connected with St. James. Harriet Tubman, who played a large role in AME Zion church affairs in central and west New York, often visited St. James, and Frederick Douglas, the author of the North Star, was reported as visiting the church in 1852.

The slaves hid under the floorboards or in spaces behind the fireplace. Then the runaway slaves would travel at night, following the North Star, to another station. The railroad actually did not start in the south, but in Maryland. The runaway slaves would make their way North by themselves. This was the most dangerous part of the journey because it was without assistance. When slaves would travel on the Underground Railroad they faced many threats. They would have to travel at night and in the forest to avoid hunters hired by the slave's master. They would also be without food between stations. The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves to follow so they didn't go to houses that belonged to partners of the slave owners. A quilt on the clothesline and a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of bricks around the top of a house's chimney was another sign of a good hiding spot. Shops that were safe often had a figure of a fleeing man or woman on a sign. Other signs were used to guide the for example: there were knocks that slaves used when approaching a house, animal calls, and lights hung in windows. When a slave was moving to the next house along the railroad, this was called "catching the next train."

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