A lesson plan is available for using this resource.
American history textbooks struggle to define and describe the Underground Railroad. Textbook editors seem nervous by the absence of hard evidence yet wary of appearing too skeptical about an institution that has become part of national folklore. The compromise is usually a short paragraph or two that highlights the bravery of Harriet Tubman followed by a quick leap into the political narrative of the 1850s. The result is unsatisfying to read and difficult to teach. Students want to know about the Underground Railroad. They deserve to hear more than about codes and safe houses and a brave woman conductor named Tubman. A study of ten popular recent high school and college American history textbooks illustrates the problem. Each textbook devotes on average about 180 words to the subject of the Underground Railroad. That amounts to about a paragraph or two. Even if you count all the additional material on subjects like abolitionists or the Fugitive Slave Law, the space devoted to the topic rarely exceeds a few pages. Under those space constraints, it is difficult to present anything of substance, but most of these samples seem especially weak on historical content.
Eight of the ten textbooks cite Harriet Tubman as the best example of Underground Railroad bravery. The textbooks that chose to ignore her simply don’t mention any specific individuals. All the textbooks taken together only mention five historic figures other than Tubman: Levi Coffin (once), Frederick Douglass (twice), Josiah Henson (once), and Nat Turner (once). The authors generally refer to groups, such as northern free blacks, abolitionists, or, in some cases, Garrisonians, but such vague references often confuse students. None of the textbooks describe key figures such as Lewis Hayden (Boston Vigilance Committee), David Ruggles (New York Vigilance Committee), or William Still (Philadelphia Vigilance Committee). None identify the most famous escaped slave of the era, Henry “Box” Brown, a man who literally shipped himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in 1849, though one textbook did manage to refer indirectly to his remarkable story.
One exercise that you might consider with advanced students is to compare the following ten textbook excerpts, asking them to identify patterns which they see emerging from the various descriptions. A series of questions should emerge. How do textbooks define the Underground Railroad? Which individuals or episodes do they highlight most frequently? What do they say about the scope and timeframe of Underground Railroad operations? Which keywords, such as “network” or “safe houses” are repeated most often, and how is that significant? And finally, after some study and reading, how would you define the Underground Railroad?
Ten Textbooks on the Underground Railroad
Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy, The American Spirit. 9th ed., Vol.1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 403-404.
“[The Underground Railroad] consisted of an informal chain of “stations” (antislavery homes), through which scores of “passengers” (runaway slaves) were spirited by “conductors” (usually white and black abolitionists) from the slave states to the free-soil sanctuary of Canada. By 1850 southerners were demanding a new and more stringent fugitive-slave law. The old one, passed by Congress in 1793, had proved inadequate to cope with runaways, especially since unfriendly state authorities failed to provide needed cooperation. Unlike cattle thieves, the abolitionists who ran the Underground Railroad did not gain personally from their lawlessness. But to the slaveowners the loss was infuriating, whatever the motives. The moral judgments of the abolitionists seemed, in some ways, more galling than outright theft. They reflected not only a holier-than-thou attitude but a refusal to obey the laws solemnly passed by Congress. Estimates indicate that the South in 1850 was losing perhaps 1,000 runaways a year, out of its total of some 4 million slaves. In fact, more blacks probably gained their freedom by self-purchase or voluntary emancipation than ever escaped. But the principle weighted heavily with the slavemasters. They rested their argument on the Constitution, which protected slavery, and on the laws of Congress, which provided for slave-catching. “Although the loss of property is felt,” said a southern senator, “the loss of honor is felt still more.”
Paul Boyer and Sterling Stuckey, The American Nation: Civil War to Present (Austin: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2001), 25.
Slaves constantly protested their bondage, both through group and individual actions. Several small uprisings took place in the early 1800s. Then, in 1831 Nat Turner organized a violent revolt in Virginia. Turner and his followers killed some 60 whites before being captured. These uprisings led southern states to pass stricter slave codes that further limited slaves’ activities. Other methods of protest included disrupting the plantation routine through such tactics as faking illness or working slowly. Some slaves ran away and tried to gain their freedom in the North. Assistance came from the Underground Railroad, a network of white and African American people who helped escaped slaves reach the North. Escaped slave Harriet Tubman was the most famous and successful “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. She made at least 19 trips and escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom. “There was one of two things I had a right to,” she stated. “Liberty or death: if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man would take me alive.”
Henry W. Bragdon, Samuel Proctor McCutchen, and Donald A. Ritchie, History of a Free Nation (New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 1998), 343.
Another leader who favored political action was Fredrick Douglass, self-educated and formerly enslaved, who edited an abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. The title was meant to remind people of the Underground Railroad. This secret abolitionist organization, which had hiding places, or stations, throughout the Northern states and even into Canada, brought enslaved people out of the South and thus ensured their freedom. Moving at night, the agents of the Underground Railroad had only Polaris, the fixed star in the Northern skies, to guide them. They not only took care of African Americans after they had come North, but they risked their lives to go into the slave states and lead enslaved others to freedom. One of the most successful agents was Harriet Tubman, the “Black Moses,” who herself had been born into slavery. After escaping, she returned to the South many times, liberating more than 300 enslaved people. Tubman avoided arrest, despite a reward of $40,000 offered for her capture.
Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey, Eleventh Edition (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003), 312, 340.
For the most part, however, resistance to slavery took other, less drastic forms. Some blacks attempted to resist by running away. A small number managed to escape to the North or to Canada, especially after sympathetic whites began organizing the so-called underground railroad to assist them in flight. But the odds against a successful escape, particularly from the Deep South, were impossibly high. The hazards of distance and the slaves’ ignorance of geography were serious obstacles. From 1840 on, therefore, abolitionism moved in many channels and spoke with many different voices. The Garrisonians remained influential, with their uncompromising moral stance. Others operated in more moderate ways, arguing that abolition could be accomplished only as the result of a long, patient, peaceful struggle -- “immediate abolition gradually accomplished,” as they called it. At first, such moderates depended on “moral suasion.” They would appeal to the conscience of the slaveholders and convince them that their institution was sinful. When that produced no results, they turned to political action, seeking to induce the northern states and the federal government to aid the cause wherever possible. They joined the Garrisonians in helping runaway slaves find refuge in the North or in Canada through the so-called underground railroad (although their efforts were never as highly organized as the terms suggests).
James West Davidson, The American Nation: Beginnings Through 1877 Teacher’s Edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2005), 441.
Some abolitionists formed the Underground Railroad. It was not a real railroad, but a network of black and white abolitionists who secretly helped slaves escape to freedom in the North or Canada. “Conductors” guided runaways to “stations” where they could spend the night. Some stations were homes of abolitionists. Others were churches or even caves. Conductors sometimes hid runaways under loads of hay in wagons with false bottoms. One daring conductor, Harriet Tubman, had escaped from slavery herself. Risking her freedom and her life, Tubman returned to the South 19 times. She led more than 300 slaves, including her parents, to freedom. Admirers called Tubman the “Black Moses” after the biblical leader who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Slave owners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture.
Robert A. Divine, et al, The American Story. 3rd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007), 288, 323.
Thousands of slaves showed their discontent and desire for freedom by running away. Most fugitives never got beyond the neighborhood of the plantation; after “lying out” for a time, they would return, often after negotiating immunity from punishment. But many escapees remained free for years by hiding in swamps or other remote areas, and a fraction escaped to the North or Mexico, stowing away aboard ships or traveling overland for hundreds of miles. Light-skinned blacks sometimes made it to freedom by passing for white. The Underground Railroad, an informal network of sympathetic free blacks (and a few whites), helped many fugitives make their way North. For the majority of slaves, however, flight was not a real option. Either they lived too deep in the South to have any chance of reaching free soil, or they were reluctant to leave family and friends behind. Free blacks in the North did more than make verbal protests against racial injustice. They were also the main conductors of the fabled Underground Railroad that opened a path for fugitives from slavery. Courageous ex-slaves such as Harriet Tubman and Josiah Henson made regular forays into the slave states to lead other blacks to freedom, and many of the “stations” along the way were run by free blacks. In northern towns and cities, free blacks organized “vigilance committees” to protect fugitives and thwart the slave-catchers. Groups of blacks even used force to rescue recaptured fugitives from the authorities.
Gary B. Nash, et al., The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. 4th ed. (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1998), 387.
The means of escape were manifold: forging passes, posing as master and servant, disguising one’s sex, sneaking aboard ships, and pretending loyalty until taken by the master on a trip to the North. One slave even hid in a large box and had himself mailed to the North. The underground railroad, organized by abolitions, was a series of safe houses and stations where runaway slaves could rest, eat, and spend the night before continuing. Harriet Tubman, who led some 300 slaves out of the South on 19 separate trips, was the railroad’s most famous “conductor.” It is difficult to know exactly how many slaves actually escaped to the North and Canada, but the numbers were not large. One estimate suggests that in 1850, about 1,000 slaves (out of over 3 million) attempted to run away, and most of them were returned. Nightly patrols by white militiamen, and important aspect of southern life, reduced the chances for any slave to escape and probably deterred many slaves from even trying to run away.
James L. Roark, et. al, The American Promise: A History of the United States Vol. 1 to 1877, 2d edition (Boston, MA: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2002), p. 382
Outside the public spotlight, free African Americans in the North and West contributed to the antislavery cause by quietly aiding fugitive slaves. Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1849 and repeatedly risked her freedom and her life to return to the South and escort slaves to freedom. Few matched Tubman’s heroic courage, but when the opportunity arose, free blacks in the North provided fugitive slaves with food, a safe place to rest, and a helping hand. This "underground railroad" ran mainly through black neighborhoods, black churches, and black homes, an outgrowth of the antislavery sentiment and opposition to white supremacy that unified virtually all African Americans in the North. While a few fortunate southern slaves rode the Underground Railroad to freedom in the North, millions of other Americans uprooted their families and headed west.
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History, Sixth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 605.
Escapees often made it out on their own -- [Fredrick] Douglass borrowed a pass from a free black seaman -- but many were aided by the Underground Railroad, which grew into a vast system to conceal runaways and spirit them to freedom, often over the Canadian border. Levi Coffin, a North Carolina Quaker who moved to Cincinnati and did help many fugitives, was the reputed president. Actually, there seems to have been more spontaneity than system about the matter, and blacks contributed more than was credited in the legend. A few intrepid refugees actually ventured back into slave states to organize escapes. Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated, went back nineteen times.
Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti, Triumph of the American Nation (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1986), 379-80.
The underground railroad was a secret system used between 1830 and 1860 to help southern slaves escape to freedom. It was neither underground nor a railroad, but was so called because its activities were carried out in darkness and disguise and because it used railroad terms as code words. Hiding places such as secret rooms and tunnels (shown here) were called “stations,” routes were “lines,” sympathetic persons who helped the slaves escape were “conductors,” and the fugitives themselves were “freight.” The work of the railroad involved hiding runaway slaves and giving them food, clothing, and directions to the next station. Northern abolitionists and free blacks, as well as many southern slaves who themselves were unable to escape, participated in the system. The most daring conductor was Harriet Tubman, a former slave who had escaped via the railroad. Tubman was called the “Moses of her people” for helping more than 300 slaves escape. She later worked as a spy for the Union during the Civil War. It is estimated that the Underground Railroad helped between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves reach freedom. The railroad’s existence aroused northern sympathies and southern anger, and thus contributed to the ill-will that resulted in the Civil War.