One of the most poignant and emotional chapters in the colorful history of blacks in the New World is the saga of enslaved African Americans who chose to escape and make the perilous journey from the South to safer havens up North or in Canada. Usually traveling in the dark of night, often chased by angry slaveholders and armed bounty hunters, they relied heavily on guides to get them to safe houses, abolitionists' homes, meeting houses and other places that would shelter them as they fled.
This network of havens began as far South as Fort Mose, Fla., a warren in St. Augustine for freed slaves from Georgia and South Carolina in the 1700s. The network stretched as far North to such locales as Northampton, Mass., where abolitionists Samuel Hill and Austin Ross sheltered escaped slaves before sending them to safety in Canada. In between, there were basements in Kentucky, secret rooms in homes in Maryland and churches in Pennsylvania, among other hideouts.
Almost a century and a half after the abolition of slavery in the United States, many of the stops along this "Underground Railroad" remain remarkably well-preserved. They're a rich opportunity for travelers to retrace the steps of escaping slaves. For the vivid insight it offers into one of the darkest chapters in African-American history, the Underground Railroad is one of the top destinations on The Root's Black Bucket List of places in black history every traveler should see before they die.
A lifelong student of African-American history, I recently revisited some of the best-known "stations" of the Underground Railroad. My sojourn started in Dorchester and Caroline counties in Maryland, along the Eastern shore of the state, where slaves fought hard to escape harsh conditions.
This is the stomping ground of Harriet Tubman, one of the "lead conductors" on the Underground Railroad. The Harriet Tubman Museum in the town of Cambridge, Md., tells her story. Born enslaved in 1822, she escaped 27 years later only to return to help usher an estimated 300 slaves to freedom.
Exhibits in the museum also offer details on the elaborate culture of the Underground Railroad and how different players collaborated to make it work. Certain songs gave signals to escapees. The popular spiritual "Wade in the Water" told them to abandon land and head for the river, where their tracks were harder to pick up. Symbols stitched into patchwork quilts told them whether it was safe to stop at a house.
Wandering Cambridge, it was easy to imagine Tubman — a spry, dark-skinned woman who always wore a head wrap — walking these streets, singing songs and aiding slaves who were ready to make a break.
Using her smarts and connections throughout the area, Tubman helped lead slaves to safe houses and eventually to points North, where they were out of the reach of slave holders. She often stayed with Sam Green, a freed minister in the nearby town of East New Market, Md. Using guides to get her from one stop to the next, she and the escaped slaves eventually ended up in the Philadelphia area, where Quakers and abolitionists found places for them. In all, Tubman made 19 trips to escort slaves to freedom.
At the Dorchester County Visitor's Center, a display gives a detailed explanation of how the Underground Railroad was organized throughout the area. The center also distributes a map telling visitors how they can navigate the historical sites on their own.
Driving through the flat plains, the area seems little changed since Tubman's days. The marshes where slaves lay in hiding line the flat, slow-moving highway.
Remnants of Black History in These Parts
In the town of Madison, Md., John Stewart Canal, a six-mile canal hand-dug by slaves, is an example of the handiwork of slave labor. About 15 miles further along, in the hamlet of Preston, Md., the James Webb Cabin — a one-room log structure built by Webb, a freed slave — offers a glimpse into how blacks of the era lived. A few miles away, in the town of Linchester, Md., is the antebellum-era Leverton House and Farm, a two-story brick house with a gable, where owners Jacob and Hannah Leverton allowed escaping slaves to stay.
From Maryland, my retrace of the footsteps of escaped slaves took me to Cincinnati. Ohio, which offered the first taste of freedom from the Confederacy for many slaves, has more than a dozen different stations of the Railroad that are still intact.
My destination was the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a modern complex opened in 2004. Strategically constructed along the banks of the Ohio River, it offers a view across the water into Kentucky, the final stop in the South for many escaping slaves.
The Freedom Center gives visitors a broad, absorbing history lesson, including an overview of the conditions that made the Underground Railroad so inviting for so many slaves.
One exhibition, "From Slavery to Freedom," is a vivid, well-curated show that tells the story of slavery in the Americas. It starts with details of the capture of unsuspecting victims in Sierra Leone and other countries along Africa's Gold Coast, and includes timelines and facts about the importance of slavery to the U.S. economy. It ends with an account of the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War.
A 25-minute film, Brothers of the Borderland, gives a gripping view into the atmosphere of the Underground Railroad. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, it tells the true story of slaves escaping to freedom in the mid-1800s. It centers on the story of John Parker and John Rankin, two abolitionists of the period based in nearby Ripley, Ohio, and how they assisted one slave woman in her escape.
Further along is "ESCAPE!" a room of placards and recordings offering biographical sketches of some of the foot soldiers who were active in the Railroad. For students of black history, there are familiar names here. One is Sojourner Truth, who fled slavery in New York in 1828 and became one of the best-known orators for the cause of abolition. Tubman is also featured here. John Brown and other whites who were active in the Underground Railroad are also portrayed.
The scope of the center reaches far beyond the sagas of escapees, though. Besides a museum, it's a learning institution, civil rights center and library in which African Americans can trace their heritage.
The centerpiece of the complex is "The Slave Pen," a two-story hewn-log house that Kentucky slave trader John Anderson used to hold slaves in the 1830s. The building, one of the few historical artifacts on display, was donated to the museum by the owner of the land on which it sat. Dismantled and rebuilt here, it's a hallowed place that reduces visitors to a hush.
My Final Railroad Stop: Brooklyn, N.Y.
This part of New York, rife with the abolition spirit in the mid-19th century, was also an Underground Railroad stronghold.
There, a local guide led me down a rickety set of stairs, through a heavy red door and into a scene that would tug at anyone's heart. We were in the damp, cavernous basement of Brooklyn's Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, used in the 1860s as a holding station for blacks fleeing slavery in the South.
The church's interior is lined with mahogany and decorated with 13 stained glass windows by the renowned designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. The church was founded in 1857 and the congregation quickly staked out a position on the side of racial progress. They sometimes gave the pulpit over to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and other leading abolitionists.
And, according to recent documents, they also sheltered escaped slaves in the tunnels deep beneath the building.
Suddenly caught in the darkness of this stop on the Underground Railroad, I froze, listening to the thump of my heart. Was that someone breathing in the corner? Whose footsteps were those shuffling?
Finally, a ray of light came through a crack in the door.
"That's what it was like to be in the Underground Railroad," my guide explained. "They could taste freedom, but they did not really have it."
Gary Lee is a freelance feature writer specializing in the culture of urban areas in the U.S. and other countries. He is based in Washington, D.C., and can be reached here.