The Underground Railroad was an informal escape network that helped fugitive slaves reach freedom. Also called the Liberty Line, this loosely organized system was neither "underground" nor a "railroad." Rather, it was a network of escape routes that originated in the southern slave states in the period of American history that led up to the Civil War. The railroad led the slaves to freedom in the northern free states, Canada, Mexico, the western territories, and the Caribbean.
Although Quakers started this anti-slavery movement in the 1780s, the Underground Railroad became legendary after the 1830s, when abolitionists and other sympathizers began helping slaves escape to freedom. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 - federal legislation that allowed slave hunters to capture an escapee in any territory or state with only oral proof that the person was a runaway - increased tensions between North and South, thereby moving the country closer to war.
Runaway slaves generally came from the upper South and were mostly skilled males without families. Whole families fled the region as well, but because the route was so dangerous, these instances of flight were rare. Fugitives traveled at night so they could avoid bounty hunters and other southern sympathizers. They followed the North Star to the northern states in places like Cincinnati, Ohio, and Wilmington, Delaware. There, "conductors" met them and directed them to freedom.
Known as "Moses," after the biblical hero who delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman fled to Pennsylvania in 1849. After freeing herself from slavery, this abolitionist returned to Maryland and rescued members of her family and others. It is believed that she made 19 trips into the South and, over a period of ten years, conducted approximately 300 people to freedom in the North without ever losing any of her charges.
Her formula for success was quite simple: although she frequently changed her routes leading to the North, Ms. Tubman always began the escapes on Saturday nights. This was significant for two reasons. First, slaves were often not required to work on Sunday. Therefore, their owners might not notice their absence until Monday morning. Secondly, newspapers would not be able to report runaway slaves until the beginning of the week. These two facts often gave Tubman and the escapees enough time to get a head start to their destination in the free states.
During the American Civil War, Tubman moved to South Carolina where she served as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army. She also helped prepare food for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, a heroic band of African-American soldiers who were known as the "Glory Brigade" after the fierce battle at Fort Wagner in 1863. She was never paid for her services, but she received an official commendation for her war effort.
Born a free man in Burlington County, New Jersey, William Still became a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and director of the General Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia. He managed the committee's finances, which were used to assist Harriet Tubman's rescue efforts. Still also established a network of safe houses and contacts stretching from the upper South to Canada.
Still also wrote William Still's Underground Railroad, an abolitionist account of the freedom network, in which he championed the hundreds of brave fugitives he interviewed as they made their way to the North. In one interview, the author made the dramatic discovery that the fugitive confronting him was his own brother, a man from whom he had been separated since boyhood.
Although Still had intended to use his interview material to assist other escaped slaves find their loved ones, he decided to compile the detailed information he had gathered into a book. This successful businessman first published William Still's Underground Railroad in 1873, making sure that the work would have a wide circulation by hiring agents to sell it in major cities.
NJ Celebrates the Underground Railroad
"The Harriet Tubman and William Still Underground Railroad Walk Across New Jersey: Celebrating New Jersey's History and Heroes Every Step of the Way," which took place September 29 through October 13, 2002, highlighted a unique part of the state's history and celebrated the freedom network that operated from Cumberland to Hudson County. Secretary of State Regena Thomas and the staff from the Department of State retraced the 180-mile path the Underground Railroad took across New Jersey.
The journey began in Greenwich's Hancock Harbor, with a symbolic crossing from Delaware to New Jersey. The tour ended with another symbolic crossing from Jersey City to New York City, where participants paused for a moment of silence at the site of the former World Trade Center before visiting the African Burial Ground and the Foley Square Monument.
Actors Millicent Sparks and Marvin Jefferson portrayed Harriet Tubman and William Still, the legendary leaders of the Underground Railroad.