The Underground Railroad was a route whereby runaway slaves could travel north and live as freed men and women. The network of routes extended through 14 Northern states and “the promised land” of Canada–beyond the reach of fugitive-slave hunters.
As a teenager (and to this day) I adored the book and film ‘Gone with the Wind’ but what I didn’t like was the way that people believed they had a right to enslave other people on the colour of their skin [Note 1]. Although today the novel is damned for its depiction of slavery, with commentators veering between saying it glamorises a brutal period of history or whitewashes it the book gave me a basis to build on, provoking me into wanting to know more.
I watched ‘Roots’ as did most of my generation and of course ‘North and South’ with Orry Main and George Hazard. I knew more about the Civil War in America than I did the English one.
The people who helped them on the journey were called ‘Conductors’. Everything was conducted in secret using codewords and secret names. In the 1930’s there was a Federal Writers Project which captured many of the stories of the Railroad and those who moved along it. I came across it a few years ago when I was just doodling around on the internet. Many of the stories are harrowing, knowing that people treated others as commodities.
The Underground Railroad offered people a way out of a desperate situation. They gave people hope and helped them forge new lives away from subjugation. The journeys were fraught with fear and the risk of being returned to the slavers or even killed. How bad was it was that would risk this for themselves and their families?
Slavery in America began in 1619 when the first Africans were brought over to assist with the Tobacco harvest. With the growing economy in America slavery grew and became a lucrative business in as much as any other business at the time.
Some 5,000 black soldiers and sailors fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783).
In the 17th and 18th centuries, black slaves worked mainly on the tobacco, rice and indigo plantations of the southern coast whereas in the North the economy wasn’t as dependant on the slaves as down south. Combined with this was the growing rise of the abolitionist movement. Spurred on by the abolitionist movements gaining momentum in other countries many states declared slavery illegal and assisted with slaves gaining their freedom although the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law declared that any runaway slaves were to be returned.
Although often cited as the catalyst for the Civil War there were a number of other factors involved and with the Northern states being industrialised the South was already at a disadvantage.
[Note 1 – A large number of Irish ‘indentured’ servants were employed particularly in Northern Factories. Sometimes these are referred to as the Irish Slaves.]