The Underground Railroad refers to the effort --sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized -- to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery. While most runaways began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in the public perception of an underground network and in the number of persons willing to give aid to the runaway. Although divided, the abolitionist movement was successful in expanding the informal network known as the underground railroad and in publicizing it.
The term "underground railroad" had no meaning to the generations before the first rails and engines of the 1820s, but the retrospective use of the term in is made so as to include incidents which have all the characteristics of underground railroad activity, but which occurred earlier. These activities foreshadowed and helped to shape the underground railroad. The origin of the term "underground railroad" cannot be precisely determined. What is known is that both those who aided escapees from slavery and those who were outraged by loss of slave property began to refer to runaways as part of an "underground railroad" by 1840. The "underground railroad" described an activity that was locally organized, but with no real center. It existed rather openly in the North and just beneath the surface of daily life in the upper South and certain Southern cities. The underground railroad, where it existed, offered local service to runaway slaves, assisting them from one point to another. Farther along, others would take the passenger into their transportation system until the final destination had been reached. The rapidity with which the term became commonly used did not mean that incidents of resistance to slavery increased significantly around 1830 or that more attempts were made to escape from bondage. It did mean that more white northerners were prepared to aid runaways and to give some assistance to the northern blacks who had always made it their business to help escapees from slavery.
The primary importance of the underground railroad was that it gave ample evidence of African American capabilities and gave expression to African American philosophy. Perhaps the most important factor or aspect to keep in mind concerning the underground railroad is that its importance is not measured by the number of attempted or successful escapes from American slavery, but by the manner in which it consistently exposed the grim realities of slavery and --more important-- refuted the claim that African Americans could not act or organize on their own. The secondary importance of the underground railroad was that it provided an opportunity for sympathetic white Americans to play a role in resisting slavery. It also brought together, however uneasily at times, men and women of both races to begin to set aside assumptions about the other race and to work together on issues of mutual concern. At the most dramatic level, the underground railroad provided stories of guided escapes from the South, rescues of arrested fugitives in the North, complex communication systems, and individual acts of bravery and suffering. While most of the accounts of secret passageways, sliding wall panels, and hidden rooms will not be verified by historic evidence, there were indeed sufficient dramas to be interpreted and verified.
Visitors may be interested in Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, located near the places featured in this itinerary.
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