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Underground Railroad Terminology

The Language of Slavery

Freedom seeker

While African Americans were in physical bondage, the minds and spirits of these individuals remained free. The terminology used in the "Learn About the Underground Railroad" section of this website reflects this freedom of spirit by referring to escaping African Americans as "freedom seekers," rather than runaways, fugitives or escapees.

These labels were constructs of the Southern slave-holding societal structure, or by some well-meaning but nonetheless patronizing abolitionists. As such, these terms tend to reflect how slave-holding society viewed African American efforts toward freedom.

Instead, the National Park Service and its partners use language reflective of the goal of liberty that Underground Railroad participants dreamed of, strove to, and eventually grasped. The term "freedom seekers," then, demonstrates what was in the hearts of freedom seeking African Americans who acted to make liberty a reality.

Fugitive

"Fugitive" was a common term in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that is still used today to describe the freedom seeker. The term was attached to the various Fugitive Slave Laws (1793, 1850) passed by the U.S. Congress, and suggests that the "fugitive" was criminal to escape from bondage. The language employed was key in attempts to preserve the view that the law was on the side of slaveholding society -- which it was -- while reinforcing the view that the "fugitive" was incapable of acting responsibly in a society governed by the rule of law.

Conductor

The term "conductor" refers to an individual who escorted or guided freedom seekers between stations or safe houses. A Conductor need not have been a member of an organized section of the Underground Railroad, only someone who provided an element of guidance to the freedom seeker.

Stationmaster

A "stationmaster" refers to an individual who provided shelter or a hiding place to freedom seekers. Shelter need not be in the dwelling of the stationmaster, yet refuge of any sort was the responsibility of the stationmaster. The stationmaster served as a clearinghouse for information regarding safe routes and nearby pursuit of freedom seekers, and coordinated with conductors and other stationmasters to provide safe passage for freedom seekers upon departure from that station.

Station

The "station" provided a haven for traveling freedom seekers, was secured by the stationmaster, and took many forms. Stations might be basements, cabins, homes, barns or caves, or any other site that provided an element of security while giving the freedom seeker an opportunity for rest and provisions.

Runaway, escapees

Terms such as "runaway" and "escapees" refer to freedom seekers. Like "fugitive," the terms tend to disparage the freedom seeker. "Runaway" conjures up the image of a discontent adolescent, while "escapee" is linked to "fugitive," evoking the image of a guilty law breaker deserving of capture and punishment.

Slave, enslaved

The historical term for human beings held in bondage and forced to perform labor or services against their will under threat of physical mistreatment or death. For the general purposes of this web site, which by no means encompass all historical references to "slave and enslaved," the terms refer to the tens of millions of kidnapped Africans transported to the Americas, and held in bondage from the sixteenth century through the American Civil War.

Special focus is placed on the escaped slave, or freedom seeker in North America, as well as the historic Underground Railroad, a powerful tool of resistance created by freedom seekers and abolitionist allies. This term, however, refers to status African American from the viewpoint of slaveholding society, especially when a freedom seeker is referred to as an "escaped slave."

Freedom seeker illustrates the African American decision to wrest control of his or her status from the slaveholder to one of their own choosing. Further, the use of the term "slave" to describe African Americans indicates that the individual accepted the term as a definition of their own humanity. "Enslaved," meanwhile, demonstrates the condition of the individual within the class and economic system of the dominant society, and less of an internalized, or intellectual condition.

Slaveholders

For the purposes of this overview of North American Underground Railroad organization and activity, the term "slaveholder" best describes the non-regional character of North American Slavery. Too often, the term "slaveholder" is used synonymously with the term "Southerner." Certainly, slavery was widespread throughout the American South, more so than any other part of the United States.

Yet so widespread was the institution of slavery that slaveholders could transport their property into free lands, especially after the Dred Scott decision, and use that property as they would in slave states. Further, U.S. citizens of all regions owned human property, not only Southerners, and creates the false impression that Southerners were the only slaveholders while Northerners created and supported the Underground Railroad.

To regionalize slavery, to draw definite borders around so fluid an institution, only serves to limit a broader, perhaps borderless conceptualization of slavery, freedom seekers, and the Underground Railroad.

Emancipation

"O Freedom." This term is often used to refer to individual or group freedom. For example, all those enslaved in the District of Columbia were freed by an act of Congress in 1862. The word is familiar because of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 which freed African Americans enslaved in the Confederacy.

Manumission

This word refers to freeing an individual or group of enslaved African Americans by will, purchase, legal petition, or legislation. Enslaved African Americans would save up from jobs for hire or sale of goods for their manumission. Slaveowners would free individuals as a favor or would pick favored people to free at the slaveholder's death. Enslaved people were willing to take the risk of going to court to seek their freedom. Some people distinguish "manumission" from "emancipation," using "manumission" to refer to only one individual at a time.

Redemption

"Redemption" is used to refer to those enslaved African Americans who were purchased by others in order to free them. The idea is that the people were "redeemed" from slavery. Some freedom seekers did not want their freedom, a God-given right, if it had to be bought. They preferred to risk recapture.

Abolitionist

This term is different from antislavery activist. An abolitionist takes a political position, and is likely politically active. The abolitionist may not act on his/her antislavery principles by helping individuals to escape from slavery.

Antislavery Activist

This term refers to a person morally or politically opposed to slavery. This person might, on occasion, help a freedom seeker. The activist might be a southerner and could be the spouse or child of a slaveholder. The activist might come from any ethnic, political, or religious group.

Bondsman

This is an alternate term for enslaved African American. It is preferable to "slave," because "bondsman" suggests a condition imposed by law.

Chattel

By using this term for an enslaved African American, a human being is equated with livestock or furniture or other tangible, portable personal property. "Chattel" could be left in a will or sold or transferred without permission of the enslaved person.

Maroon

This term refers to a community or a member of the community of a small group of enslaved African Americans who escaped slavery and lived in a remote place (like a swamp or the mountains). These settlements often actively assisted freedom seekers. The Everglades and the Great Dismal Swamp were sites of maroon communities.

Operative

"Operative" is someone who is an accomplice to escape by a freedom seeker. He or she may help arrange an escape, serve as a "conductor," or help those escaping. When the freedom seeker is caught, he or she might provide a lawyer or money for fines and bail, and/or arrange purchase from the slaveholder.

Personal Liberty Laws

These laws for rights like habeas corpus, trial by jury, and protection from seizure defended those escaping, in direct opposition to the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Northern states like Indiana enacted laws providing these rights to freedom seekers starting as early as 1824. Such laws show the growing resistance to slavery in the North. Due to the cases of Ableman v. Booth and United States v. Booth the state of Wisonsin acted to nullify the decision of the Supreme Court whose southern Justices found personal liberty laws unconstitutional.

Slave Patrol

Formed by state militas and county courts or by plantation owners themselves, these groups of men were responsible for avoiding crime by blacks and keeping enslaved African Americans in their place. Members might be poor whites or wealthier property owners. Mounted on horses, they were often armed with guns, whips, and clubs, and not afraid to be brutal. They would stop blacks and demand "passes" or other forms of identification to demonstrate that the blacks were not freedom seekers. Slave patrols had the right to search slave quarters. Some called them "patrollers" or "patty rollers." They were feared, especially if provoked.

Term Slavery

"Term," in regard to eighteenth and nineteenth century slavery, means the African American was not enslaved for life, but only for a set number of years. At the end of the set term, the individual was to be freed. If sold, the restricted number of years of slavery was to be honored. Unfortunately the distinction between "term" and "slave for life" was not always respected.