Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad?

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

The Underground Railroad, by Wilbur Siebert
The Underground Railroad, by Wilbur Siebert

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Facts About the Negro: No. 24: Is most of what we believe about the Underground Railroad true?

One of the genuine pleasures of teaching African-American Studies today is the satisfaction of being able to restore to the historical record “lost” events and the individuals whose sacrifices and bravery created those events, never to be lost again. Few institutions from the black past have attracted more attention recently from teachers, students, museum curators and the tourism industry than the Underground Railroad, one of the most venerable and philanthropic innovations in our ancestors’ long and dreadful history in human bondage. But in the zeal to tell the story of this great institution, legend and lore have sometimes overwhelmed historical facts. Separating fact from fiction — always an essential part of telling it like it really was — has required a great deal of effort from a number of scholars. Doing so only makes the sacrifices and heroism of our ancestors and their allies all the more noble, heroic and impressive.

Sometimes when I hear our students talk about the Underground Railroad, it seems to me that they are under the impression that it was akin to a black, Southern Grand Central Station, with regularly scheduled routes that hundreds of thousands of slave “passengers” used to escape from Southern plantations, aided by that irrepressible, stealthy double agent, Harriet Tubman. Many also seem to believe that thousands of benign, incognito white “conductors” routinely hid the slaves in secret rooms concealed in attics or basements, or behind the staircases of numerous “safe houses,” the locations of which were coded in “freedom quilts” sewn by the slaves and hung in their windows as guideposts for fugitives on the run. 

The “railroad” itself, according to this legend, was composed of “a chain of stations leading from the Southern states to Canada,” as Wilbur H. Siebert put it in his massive pioneering (and often wildly romantic) study, The Underground Railroad (1898), or “a series of hundreds of interlocking ‘lines,’ ” that ran from Alabama or Mississippi, throughout the South, all the way across the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon Line, as the historian David Blight summarizes in Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (a book, by the way, that should be required reading for all of us who want to understand the truth about the Underground Railroad and its important role in African-American history, as well as Fergus M. Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement). Fleeing slaves, often entire families, were allegedly guided at night in their desperate quest for freedom by the proverbial “Drinking Gourd,” the slave’s code name for the North Star.  

The Railroad in Lore

A partial list of some of the most common myths about the Underground Railroad would include the following:

1. Well-intentioned white abolitionists, many of whom were Quakers, ran it.
2. The Underground Railroad operated throughout the South.
3. Most fugitive slaves who made it to the North found sanctuary along the way in secret rooms concealed in attics or cellars, and many escaped through tunnels.
4. Slaves created so-called “freedom quilts” and hung them at the windows of their homes to alert escaping fugitives to the location of safe houses and secure routes north to freedom.
5. The Underground Railroad was a large-scale activity that enabled hundreds of thousands of people to escape their bondage.
6. Entire families commonly escaped together.
7. The spiritual “Steal Away” was used to alert slaves that Harriet Tubman would be coming to town, or that an opportune time to flee was at hand.