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

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Often well-meaning white people crafted “romantic adventure stories — about themselves,” as Blight puts it, stories that placed white “conductors” in heroic and romantic roles in the struggle for black freedom, stealing agency from supposedly helpless and nameless African Americans (who braved the real dangers), a counterpart to popular images of a saintly, erect Abraham Lincoln bequeathing freedom to passive, kneeling slaves. With the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876 — often blamed on supposedly ignorant or corrupt black people — the winning of freedom became a tale of noble, selfless white efforts on behalf of a downtrodden, faceless, nameless, “inferior” race.   

Much of contemporary misunderstanding and myth about the Underground Railroad originated with Wilbur Siebert’s 1898 study. Siebert interviewed nearly everyone still living who had some memory related to the network and even traveled to Canada to interview former slaves who traced their own routes from the South to freedom. 

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.”