Fergus Bordewich: Well there’s so many of them [that] I think that most Americans, if asked to name someone associated with the Underground Railroad, probably could only name Harriet Tubman and some would perhaps also name Frederick Douglas—both good people to name of course. Nonetheless, as important and fascinating as these two individuals were there was a multitude, certainly thousands and probably a few tens of thousands of Americans involved in Underground Railroad activity from its early days at the end of the 1790’s right up to the Civil War. Many of them were really remarkable people.
One of the most vivid in my own mind is Isaac Tatum Hopper, who was a Quaker—a feisty, two-fisted Quaker, so to speak— who began doing what we now call “underground activity” in Philadelphia in the 1790’s initially helping people who were illegally still enslaved in the state of Pennsylvania. Bear in mind that all our states were originally slave states and slavery was legal to some degree in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, [and] most other northern states into the early Nineteenth Century. There were Pennsylvanians who were enslaved illegally under the state laws of the time; Quakers like Hopper, particularly Hopper, began assisting them to freedom. Hopper was famous for his rather colorful exploits.
On one occasion he jumped on a horse and chased a boat down the Delaware—a boat that was carrying away a kidnapped, black, Philadelphia boy to be carried into slavery in Maryland. He chased the boat down the river until its first landfall, ran onto the boat, tore the boy off bodily and carried him back to Philadelphia and safety. He made a habit of bursting into the homes of people who had illegally kept individuals in bondage. He went to court representing [enslaved people]. He wasn’t a lawyer but nonetheless he represented/spoke for enslaved people. He also pioneered techniques that become standard in the Underground Railroad, such as using disguises—disguising men as women and women as men— [and] moving people from the city of Philadelphia out to the countryside or from the countryside to the city. He went on to have a tremendous personal influence in the development of the Underground Railroad including, after the 1820s, helping to organize the Underground Railroad in New York City. So, Hopper is somebody whose name we all ought to know as readily as we know Harriet Tubman’s.
Someone else, David Ruggles was a protégé of Isaac Tatum Hopper. He was an African American born free in Connecticut—[a] very well educated man. [He] moved from Connecticut to New York City in the 1820s [and] established a small business, but really committed himself heart and soul to the education and social betterment of African Americans in New York City. Bear in mind that there were enslaved people in New York City until 1827. He, David Ruggles, and Hopper together organized the Underground Railroad known as the New York Vigilance Committee in the mid-1830s. They assisted hundreds, many hundreds of fugitives coming north through New York City [by] sending them northward up the Hudson Valley to Albany and safety or out to Long Island, to Connecticut, to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
David Ruggles, again I find him a particularly because he was bold, tough, [and] confrontational. There was nothing deferential in his style of working. He was, as I said, born free and he thought of himself as a free man. He would simply not brook being treated coarsely by American racism. He is notable for many things, but he was the person to whom the terrified runaway, Frederick Bailey, came on his flight north.
Frederick Bailey—after Ruggles has taken him in, brought his wife north from Maryland, seen them married in his own home (Ruggles’ home in New York City), given them a few dollars, and put them on a boat to New Bedford—that man[, Frederick Bailey,] becomes Frederick Douglas and Frederick Douglas, the most towering figure of the black antislavery movement, became who he was thanks to David Ruggles. If he had not made it to Ruggles’ home in New York City and the safe embrace of the Underground Railroad, he might easily have been swept up by slave hunters in New York—he was near despair before he was directed to Ruggles’ home. Ruggles, as I said, liberated many, many, many people.
A Third individual who we all ought to know about is man named Jermaine Logan, whose exploits are also pretty dramatic. He was a fugitive slave himself. He escaped from Tennessee on horseback [and] rode, in the dead of winter, all the way to Canada. A fascinating aspect of his escape was that he had been given some advice by a sympathetic white man in Tennessee. [He was] not an Underground Railroad figure, but somebody who was happy to see slaves run away from their masters; he just didn’t like slavery. He advised Logan and his companion to ride boldly to the biggest house in any town they entered, knock on the front door, and offer to pay for a place to sleep. He said “act like a free man, and nobody will think you’re a fugitive slave.” That worked quite well for [Logan] almost until he reached the Ohio River.
At any rate, he had many more adventures, went to Canada, farmed for a while and then returned to the United States. [He] became educated and became a fiery abolitionist preacher in upstate New York and became the head of the Underground Railroad in the intensely abolitionist city of Syracuse, New York. In the 1850s he led a huge crowd in Syracuse to rescue a fugitive slave, Jerry Henry, literally from the physical embrace of the federal commissioner who was about to send him back south. Logan also was extremely bold. He advertised his address in newspapers in Syracuse. He had business cards that identified him as “Station Master: Underground Railroad.” He held fundraisers in the city council chambers in Syracuse. He was afraid of no one; he dared his former masters to come and take him in Syracuse.
There are so many stories like that, but those are a few.