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Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out which popular beliefs are myths (slave quilts, anyone?).

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While Siebert ignored the most fanciful stories he heard, he placed far too much emphasis on the work of so-called white conductors and depicted the experience as a very systematic and interrelated series of way stations and routes -- which he traced in detailed maps -- not unlike a railroad line or system of rail lines. As David Blight remarks, Siebert "fashioned a popular story of primarily white conductors helping nameless blacks to freedom."

Truth Reveals Unheralded Heroism

That's a bit of the history; what of those myths? Here are the answers:

1. The Underground Railroad and the abolition movement itself were perhaps the first instances in American history of a genuinely interracial coalition, and the role of the Quakers in its success cannot be gainsaid. It was, nevertheless, predominantly run by free Northern African Americans, especially in its earliest years, most notably the great Philadelphian William Still. He operated with the assistance of white abolitionists, many of whom were Quakers. 

White and black activists such as Levi Coffin, Thomas Garrett, Calvin Fairbank, Charles Torrey, Harriet Tubman and Still were genuine heroes of the Underground Railroad. William Still himself, according to James Horton, recorded the rescue of 649 fugitives sheltered in Philadelphia, including 16 who arrived on one day alone, June 1, 1855, according to Blight.

The Railroad's expansion did not occur until after 1850, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. But very few people, relatively speaking, engaged in its activities. After all, it was illegal to assist slaves escaping to their freedom. Violating the 1850 Act could lead to charges of "constructive treason." Being an abolitionist or a conductor on the Underground Railroad, the historian Donald Yacovone related in an email to me, "was about as popular and as dangerous as being a member of the Communist Party in 1955."

3. Those tunnels or secret rooms in attics, garrets, cellars or basements? Not many, I'm afraid. Most fugitive slaves spirited themselves out of towns under the cover of darkness, not through tunnels, the construction of which would have been huge undertakings and quite costly. And few homes in the North had secret passageways or hidden rooms in which slaves could be concealed. 

4. Freedom quilts? Simply put, this is one of the oddest myths propagated in all of African-American history. If a slave family had the wherewithal to make a quilt, they used it to protect themselves against the cold, and not to send messages about supposed routes on the Underground Railroad in the North, where they had never been! However, sometimes, on occasion, messages of all sorts were given out at black church gatherings and prayer meetings, but not about the day and time that Harriet Tubman would be coming to town. The risk of betrayal about individual escapes and collective rebellions, as we shall see in a future column, was far too great for escape plans to be widely shared.

5. How many slaves actually escaped to a new life in the North, in Canada, Florida or Mexico? No one knows for sure. Some scholars say that the soundest estimate is a range between 25,000 and 40,000, while others top that figure at 50,000. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati says that number could be as high as 100,000, according to Elizabeth Pierce, an official there, though that seems quite optimistic to me.  

We can put these estimates in perspective by remembering that in 1860 there were 3.9 million slaves, and only 488,070 free Negroes (more than half of whom were still living in the South), while in 1850 there were 434,495 free Negroes. Since these figures would include those fugitives who had made it to the North on the Underground Railroad, plus natural increase, we can see how small the numbers of fugitive slaves who actually made it to the North in this decade, for example, unfortunately were.

It's also important to remember that only 101 fugitive slaves ever published book-length "slave narratives" about their enslavement before the end of the Civil War. But astonishingly, more than 50,000 slaves ran away not to the North, but "within the South," according to John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger's pioneering study, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, "annually during the late antebellum period," as Blight informs us. But few of them made it to freedom.

6. Who escaped? Whole families? According to John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, as Blight summarizes, "80 percent of these fugitives were young males in their teens and twenties who generally absconded alone. Indeed, [between 1838 and 1860] 95 percent fled alone. Young slave women were much less likely to run away because of their family and child-rearing responsibilities. Entire families with children did attempt flights to freedom, but such instances were rare."


I wish it had been otherwise, but the escape and rescue of fugitive slaves simply didn't happen in the ways suggested by the most common myths about the Underground Railroad. Just think about it for a minute: If escaping slavery had been this systematically organized and maintained, slavery would most probably have collapsed long before the Civil War, right?