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Glossary for Kids

Underground Railroad is a term that people first used before the American Civil War to describe the organized efforts to help runaway slaves escape to freedom.  These activities were often secret, sometimes dangerous, and almost always illegal, but many of the people who helped runaways flee on the Underground Railroad did so openly because they hated slavery so much and because they believed that any laws protecting slavery were wrong and should be broken.  

Abolitionist refers to someone who wanted to see an immediate end to slavery.   In the early history of the United States, many people were opposed to slavery, but there were few true abolitionists.  However, these abolitionists had influence far beyond their numbers, because they were so active in the struggle.  That is why many, but not all of them, supported the Underground Railroad.  Some abolitionists wanted to end slavery but still could not support the idea of breaking the law to free individual slaves.

Canaan is a place described in the Bible as land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants.  For runaway slaves, “Canaan” was a word they used to describe Canada, which was then a country that had banned slavery and bravely refused to send escaped slaves back to their masters.

Conductor refers to people who helped runaway slaves move from place to place during their flight to freedom.  Today, Harriet Tubman is the best known conductor of the Underground Railroad, but there were hundreds of others who performed this most dangerous job.

Fugitive is a word that Americans used in the nineteenth century to describe a slave who ran away from his or her master.  Fugitives were also called “runaways” but today many people prefer to think of them as “freedom seekers.”   Not all fugitives escaped on the Underground Railroad -- many left slavery on their own and ran away without any organized help.

North Star refers to the star “Polaris” which can only be seen in the northern hemisphere and which can be used to help guide travel in a northern direction.  Some runaway slaves relied on the North Star as their main navigational tool during their flight to freedom.

Slavery was a system of laws and customs that existed in the United States until 1865 which treated most black people as property.   Masters owned slaves and could decide every aspect of their lives, from where they lived (and with whom) to what they did each day. Different forms of slavery had existed  throughout the world’s history, but there was something especially cruel about an American slave system that was based on race and offered almost no hope of freedom.   

Station refers to a home or location that provided fugitive slaves or runaways with a safe resting place during their escape.  Today, there are lots of stories about secret stations along the Underground Railroad, but many of them cannot be proven to be true.


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