In 1831 a slave master from Kentucky, in search of a slave in Ripley, Ohio, was reported as saying that he “must have gone off on an underground road.” Soon the organized network of slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists assisting freedom seekers was being called “The Underground Railroad.“ Although this network helped many, some achieved freedom without aid of any kind from anyone.
As early as 1780 organizations for aiding and hiding fugitive slaves existed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. But all routes did not lead north. Frequently slaves in Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri went north while those in Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas went south to Mexico, the Caribbean, or to maroon (descendants of fugitive slaves living in the West Indies and Guiana) societies and native peoples outside the U.S. border.
Underground Railroad workers used secret symbols, signs, and language to describe the network. An “agent” described anyone who worked on the Underground Railroad. Fugitives traveled from “station to station” or a system of safe places maintained by “station masters.” Agents who accompanied fugitives from station to station were “conductors.” Many larger networks had “managers” or “presidents.” “Stockholders” contributed food, clothing, transportation and money.
Slavery ended in New York in 1827, just as central New York’s commercial resources, including waterpower and transportation networks, drew abolitionist business owners. The close-by Canadian border encouraged many to support the Underground Railroad with money and deeds, especially after the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia, led by Nat Turner. This uprising caused white southerners to panic and support harsher laws and practices to enforce slavery.
Although they faced severe opposition, women and men of both races organized abolitionist societies, sponsoring lecturers and raising money to aid fugitives. In 1833 the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was the first interracial anti-slavery organization for women. Its white membership included Lucretia Mott, and her daughters Maria Davis and Anna Hopper, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Esther Moore, Lydia White, and Mary and Susan Grew. African American members included Charlotte, Margaretta, and Sarah Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Sarah Mapps Douglass.
African American Participation in the Underground Railroad
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