Anti-Slavery Movement/Underground Railroad

Map of


Guy Duquella

The underground railroad was a network of routes that slaves used to escape to the free states. The slaves would travel by night and hideout during the day. The free blacks and whites provided slaves with food, clothing, and places to hide. The underground railroad helped thousands of slaves escape.

The transportation of slaves was done in secret in order not to be caught. Each stop was a station, each slave was a step closer to the north after each station and was given food and rest. The most common route would lead from Henrietta through Monroe County and into Rochester. The Underground Railroad was organized by abolitionists. It helped runaway slaves escape to freedom in the north or in Canada. The underground railroad was a protest against slavery. The underground railroad had no formal organization. Slaves were all over the south and wanted freedom. Most of these slaves came from Africa. By 1836 there were more than 1,200 blacks living in Seminole towns( Blassingame 1979: 211).

The antislavery movement played a role in assisting runaways to freedom. Most of the help that contributed to the success of the Underground Railroad were the African American and white abolitionists. The escape from the south to the north is how many slaves got their freedom. The reasons for why slaves often runaway were: to many beatings, long hours in the fields, bad nutrition, or being sold away and losing their loved ones. Their masters gave them horrible living conditions, restricted their movement and gave them little or no pay. Still many slaves were inspired to flee, they had a desire for personal liberty (Franklin 1988: 169).

In 1835, James L. Bradley recalled his yearning for freedom when he wrote:

When I was fourteen years old, I used to think about freedom. It was my heart’s desire; I could not keep it out of my mind. Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears, because I was a slave..... My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty (Blassingame 1977: 688).

The Underground Railroad was possible with the help of one conductor named Harriet Tubman.   She led hundreds of slaves to the North.

Harriet was born in the Bucktown, Maryland. Her greatest success was that she led more than three hundred slaves to freedom in just eleven trips to the North. Harriet married John Tubman, an escaped black slave, in 1844. She escaped in 1849 and went through the Underground Railroad. Along the way she met William Still, he was the busiest "station masters". He was a free black from Pennsylvania who could read and write. He used these talents to interview runaway slaves and record their names and stories in a book. He published the book in 1872 under the title The Underground Railroad. It is still revised and published today (McClard 65-68). In 1850, Harriet helped her first slaves escape to the North. After that she was made an official "conductor" of the Underground Railroad. She knew exactly which routes to take and kept the Underground Railroad a secret. Harriet also rescued her family and friends and aided them to the home of Thomas Garret, the most famous Underground "stationmaster" in history (McClard 72-74).

She made eleven trips from Maryland to Canada from 1852-1857. She had one trip where one slave wanted to go back, so she pointed a gun at his head and said "dead folks tell no tales"(Sterling 16-18).Harriet Tubman’s efforts in the Underground Railroad and in the Civil War strengthened the abolitionist movement by completing the goal it had intended to do: free slaves and abolish slavery. She did this because she wanted to be free and heal the wounds that slavery had left her. Harriet thought, if slavery was non-existent, then her past was really behind her and she could finish her life as a free citizen of the United States. She had opened the eyes of white people all over America and assisted them in understanding why slavery was immoral (McClard 127-128). Harriet died in 1913 at the age of 92 years old and she still is a famous black American.

Frederick Douglass was the leading spokesman against slavery. He was born on a plantation in Tuckahoe, Maryland in 1818. In 1838 he managed to flee and join anti slavery forces in the north. Douglass spoke with such force, intelligence , polish, and conviction that the many who heard him doubted that he ever was a slave. In his life and times Frederick Douglass said this sentiment:

I hated slavery always, and my desire for freedom needed only a favorable breeze to fan it to a blaze at any moment. The thought of being a creature of the present and of the past troubled me, and I longed to have a future with hope in it.(Douglass 1962; 1892: 156)

He lived in Rochester, New York , publishing a number of newspapers, writing his second and third autobiographies entitled My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He died in Washington, DC in 1895.

Alton was an important Underground Railroad location. Charles Hunter was one of Alton’s best known Underground Railroad conductors. Alton was also the site of an Underground Railroad network running the length of the of the Mississippi that was conducted by free blacks. Another important place was the Levi Coffin House, built in 1827 and is now a National Historic Landmark. The house was owned by Levi Coffin (1789-1877). He was the president of the Underground Railroad and helped more than 2,00 slaves escape to freedom using the house as a resting and hiding area. The most common stations that the slaves rested at were conducted by people like: Levi Coffin, Thomas Garret, Jermaine W. Loguen, and William Still. Shelters were normally found about 10 to 30 miles apart on northbound "railways"(Franklin 1988:169).

Throughout all this time the Underground Railroad was the only way to freedom until slavery was abolished and hundreds of slaves were thankful to great conductors like Harriet Tubman and others who participated in helping them get their freedom and liberty. The Underground Railroad will remain as one of the United States greatest problems. Its operation angered many Southerners and contributed to the conflicts between the North and the South that led to the Civil War. The Underground Railroad showed how determined the blacks and many whites were to end slavery in the United States.


Harriet Tubman and runaway slaves
Tubman and slaves

Frederick Douglass' Home

Levi Coffin's House
Levi Coffin's

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