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

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Scholars such as Larry Gara in his book The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad and Blight, among others, have worked diligently to address all of these points, and I’ll summarize the correct answers based on their work, and that of others, at the end of this article. First, a short history of the Underground Railroad: 

A Meme Is Born

The Railroad has proven to be one of the most “enduring and popular threads in the fabric of America’s national historical memory,” as Blight rightly puts it. Since the end of the 19th century, many Americans — especially in New England and the Midwest — have either fabricated stories about the exploits of their ancestors or simply repeated tales they have heard. However, before we tackle those tales, it’s worth looking at the origins of the term “Underground Railroad.”

Various explanations exist for how it was coined. Tice Davids was a Kentucky slave who successfully escaped to Ohio in 1831, and the term “Underground Railroad” may have been coined based on his escape. His owner had been pursuing Davids but lost track of him in Ohio. It is said he claimed that Davids disappeared as if “the nigger must have gone off on an underground railroad,” according to Blight. I love this story — an account worthy of Richard Pryor — but this seems unlikely, since rail lines barely existed at this time. 

Two other possibilities exist. One story from 1839 claims that a fugitive slave from Washington, D.C., was tortured and confessed that he had been sent north, where “the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston.” If one checks the Liberator newspaper, however, the first time the term appears is on Oct. 11, 1839, in which an editorial by Hiram Wilson from Toronto called for the creation of “a great republican railroad … constructed from Mason and Dixon’s to the Canada line, upon which fugitives from slavery might come pouring into this province.” 

The actual phrase “Underground Railroad” first appeared in the Liberator on Oct. 14, 1842, a date that may be buttressed by those who assert that the abolitionist Charles T. Torrey coined the phrase in 1842. In any event, as David Blight states, the phrase did not become common until the mid-1840s.

Myth Battles Counter-Myth

The appeal of romance and fancy in stories of the Underground Railroad can be traced to the latter decades of the 19th century, when the South was winning the battle of popular memory over the meaning of the Civil War — sending Lost Cause mythology deep into the national psyche and eventually helping to propel the Virginia-born racist Woodrow Wilson into the White House. In the face of a dominating Southern interpretation of the meaning of the Civil War, many white Northerners sought to preserve a heroic version of their past and found a useful tool in legends of the Underground Railroad.