History of the Network to Freedom Program

Today, the Underground Railroad, defined as "resistance to slavery through escape and flight," is a household name. This is in part because of the work done by the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program (est. 1998). This National Park Service program preserves, documents, and amplifies Underground Railroad History. For the past 25 years, the Network to Freedom program worked alongside community members and local historians to highlight Underground Railroad stories across the United States and beyond.


Influenced by grass roots efforts and the recommendations of a Special Resource Study, legislators passed the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act. The program serves to honor and commemorate the people of the Underground Railroad. The legislation outlined a three-pronged program:

  • Educate the public.

  • Provide technical assistance for documenting, preserving and interpreting Underground Railroad history.

  • Create a network of historic sites; interpretive and educational programs; and research and educational facilities all with a "verifiable association" to the Underground Railroad.

First Steps: Community Consultation

After passage of the Network to Freedom Act, program founders needed to create the program envisioned in the legislation. Consultation with local researchers and community advocates was critical. The program needed to respect local history and honor public memories of the Underground Railroad. The National Park Service invited community representatives to take part in several meetings focused on these issues. In July 1999, representatives met in Columbus, Ohio and considered what kinds of sites, programs, and facilities the program should recognize. They also discussed the guiding principles for use of the Network to Freedom Logo. In January 2000, representatives met in Charleston, South Carolina, where they discussed what the Network to Freedom's legislation meant by the words "verifiable association." Advocates discussed the importance of oral tradition to document Underground Railroad histories. They also examined issues related to historic preservation of Underground Railroad properties.

Participants agreed that the Network to Freedom should be inclusive when deciding what kinds of sites, programs, and facilities qualified. For example, many people assume that the only potential kind of Network to Freedom site would be a safe house. By examining any location connected to a freedom seeker's journey, Underground Railroad sites could also include courthouses where legal challenges related to escape and flight occurred, kidnapping sites, maroon communities, freedom destinations, etc. The program could only holistically document the Underground Railroad by examining a wide array of places connected to a freedom seeker's journey.

Community conversations also emphasized the importance of maintaining clear standards of Underground Railroad documentation. At the turn of the 21st century, there was a perception that accurate information about the Underground Railroad did not exist. Historians assumed the Underground Railroad was a well-worn myth. They assumed that because of the movement's clandestine nature, historians could not document it. Yet, local historians and community advocates researched the Underground Railroad for many years. They found evidence in local repositories, family and church records, etc. Advocates identified the need for credibility in claims of Underground Railroad association. As the Network to Freedom staff developed a mission statement, application, and research guidance, staff continued to consult with community members and other National Park Service staff.

Group photograph of the Network to Freedom founders and then National Park Service Director, Bob Stanton.
Group photo of the first Network to Freedom Staff with former National Park Service Director, Bob Stanton, at the Network to Freedom Launch event in 2000.

NPS Photo

The Launch of the Network to Freedom

On October 12, 2000, The National Park Service and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) hosted Underground Railroad "Network to Freedom" Day in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At this event, they launched the Network to Freedom logo, application process, and original program website. The occasion centered Underground Railroad history and highlighted the new National Park Service program dedicated to documenting and commemorating its history. The day's events included:

  • Participants received a first day issue cancellation, "Network to Freedom Day" provided by the U.S. Postal Service;

  • Self-guided walking tours of Underground Railroad sites in the area;

  • A National Press Conference at Independence Square, featuring the unveiling of the Network to Freedom logo by National Park Service Director Robert Stanton and comments by Tom Kiernan, NPCA President;

  • A Network to Freedom Walk, in which participants from across the United States celebrated the program and raised awareness of the Underground Railroad by walking from Independence Square to Mother Bethel AME Church in Pennsylvania;

  • An "In the Spirit of the Ancestors" performance at Mother Bethel AME Church, including a musical performance by "Seven Quilts for Seven Sisters" depicting the communication networks used during the Underground Railroad;

  • An "In Their Words" breakfast;
  • And a Spirit of Freedom banquet, featuring a performance by Melba Moore.

History of the Network to Freedom Grant Program

Following the formation of the Network to Freedom, Congress established the Network to Freedom Grants Program in October 2000 (Public Law 106-291, Section 4). The purpose of the grant program is to provide support for "preservation and related research" to members of the Network to Freedom. Congress appropriated funds in fiscal years: 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2008. In 2012, 2014, 2017, and 2019-2022, the Network to Freedom used operational funding to support competitively selected projects. Learn more about the grant program on our Grants Page.

The Network to Freedom Today

Today, the Network to Freedom consists of over 700 listings, from 39 states, plus Washington D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Network to Freedom works with its members to tell the stories of the Underground Railroad from across the nation. Read more about our program, goals, and mission in our National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom strategic plan.

Last updated: February 14, 2023