In Search of Freedom
Beginning in the early nineteenth century, a movement called the Underground
Railroad helped enslaved people flee the South.
Operating without formal organization, participants in the Underground
Railroad included both white and black abolitionists, enslaved African
Americans, American Indians, and members of such religious groups as
the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists.
Brutal Challenges to the System
Most African Americans resisted enslavement. They used techniques such
as work slow-downs, sabotage, sickness, self-mutilation, or the destruction
of property. Whenever possible, individuals attempted to liberate themselves
by running away. Some runawayscalled maroonscreated free
communities, such as those that existed in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp
or in the Florida Everglades among the Seminole Indians. Beginning in
the seventeenth century, African Americans repeatedly banded together
in attempts to overthrow the institution of slavery. Large-scale uprisings
included Gabriel's Rebellion, which occurred near Richmond, Virginia,
in 1800. The revolt's leader, Gabriel Prosser, reportedly drew inspiration
from the Haitian Revolution. The best-known rebellion occurred in 1831
in Southampton County, Virginia. Led by enslaved preacher Nat Turner,
some seventy followers destroyed property and murdered more than fifty
white men, women, and children within a twenty-four hour period. Following
Turner's rebellion many Virginia slaveholders reported insubordinate
behavior by their slaves. In retaliation vigilantes murdered innocent
blacks. The uprising succeeded in terrorizing white southerners, and
as a direct result, southern lawmakers enacted stricter regulations
designed to tightly control the activities of enslaved and free African
Fugitive Slave Act
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 permitted the recapture and extradition
of escaped slaves with the assistance of federal marshals. To combat
the perceived success of the Underground Railroad, one of the provisions
of the Compromise of 1850 levied fines and prison sentences on individuals
who helped runaways. The spectacle of African Americans reenslaved on
the slightest pretext brought the reality of slavery forcibly into northern
life. Unscrupulous traders also kidnapped free African Americans during
this period and sold them south into slavery. The Fugitive Slave Law
forced runaways to flee to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and even Europe.
Methods of Escape
Slaves passed information about methods of escape by word-of-mouth,
in stories, and through songs. No actual trains existed on the Underground
Railroad, but guides were called conductors and the hiding places that
they used, depots or stations. Runaways escaped to the North along a
loosely connected series of routes that stretched through the southern
border states. Guided north by the stars and sometimes singing traditional
songs like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," most runaways travelled at night
on foot and took advantage of the natural protections offered by swamps,
bayous, forests, and waterways. Others who escaped from the South travelled
into the western territories, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Some runaways
took refuge in cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans and blended
into the free black population.
Adjusting to Freedom
Once free, former slaves remade their lives. Many worked hard to raise
money to purchase family members still in slavery or to help further
their escape. While savoring new experiences, they discovered the extent
to which bigotry prevailed in northern society. Obstacles existed for
them to find work and to secure satisfactory housing. Few, however,
longed for their old lives. "Through the mercy of God," one former slave
relished, "he can hold up his hands and pronounce the sentence, 'I am
a Freeman!'" During the Civil War many African Americans joined the
Federal forces to fight for slavery's destruction.
African Americans totalled six percent of the South's population in
1860. Free blacks often lived in cities such as Charleston, South Carolina;
Natchez, Mississippi; New Orleans, Louisiana; Washington, D.C.; or Baltimore,
Maryland, where they found better opportunities for employment and autonomy
from whites. Despite the limitations imposed by the racist society that
surrounded them, these free African Americans established their own
churches, schools, and charitable organizations.
In a landmark legal case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court,
Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. Taken into free territory by
his owner but returned to Missouri, a slave state, Scott argued that
his earlier residency made him a free man. Finally in 1857, the Supreme
Court found that Scott, as a bondsperson, was not recognized as a U.S.
citizen under the Constitution, and therefore, not eligible to sue in
the courts. The decision widened the gulf between North and South.
abolitionist John Brown dedicated his life to slavery's destruction.
Frederick Douglass wrote of Brown, whom he admired, "His zeal in the
cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper
light; his was as the burning sun. I could live for the slave; John
Brown could die for him." In 1859, hoping to act as a catalyst for a
widespread slave rebellion, Brown and 18 men unsuccessfully attacked
the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). One
member of Brown's group, African American abolitionist Osborne Anderson,
escaped from Harpers Ferry via the Underground Railroad to Canada.
Underground Railroad: A Chronology
1817 Andrew Jackson takes command of federal troops engaging in a
ruthless war against Seminoles and runaways in Florida.
1820-21 Missouri Compromise admits Missouri and Maine into the Union
to maintain the balance of the slave and free states; also establishes
line between free and slave territory.
1831 William Lloyd Garrison begins publication of the abolitionist
newspaper, the Liberator.
1838 Black abolitionist Robert Purvis becomes chairman of the General
Vigilance Committee, whose task is to assist runaways, in New York
1847 Frederick Douglass begins publication of his abolitionist newspaper
The North Star.
1848 First Women's Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York;
abolitionists Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frederick
1854 Black abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper hired by Maine
Anti-Slavery Society to lecture in New England and Lower Canada.
1863 The Emancipation Proclamation becomes effective January 1, 1863.
President Abraham Lincoln's action thereby made abolition of slavery
as important a goal in the prosecution of the Civil War as preserving
the Federal Union.
1865 Civil War ends. The thirteenth amendment, which abolishes slavery,
is ratified by the required three-fourths of the states, December