The Underground Railroad

Black woman helped off a boat in the middle of night.
Arrival of 15 escaped slaves from Norfolk, Virginia. Image courtesy: NPS

The Underground Railroad was not a train, nor did it move below ground. Instead, the misnomer represented a network of secret routes and safe houses established to help enslaved blacks escape north toward the free states and Canada.

New Bedford became a popular stop on the Underground Railroad. Its successful whaling industry created job opportunities for people of all backgrounds, both at sea and in the shoreside businesses that supported whaling.

Additionally, the large Quaker population and population of free people of color meant protection, while the coastal trading system provided opportunities to hide aboard vessels leaving southern ports. By the 1840s, New Bedford was home to 300-700 escaped slaves.
 
Henry Brown peeks out from inside a small wooden box.
Henry 'Box' Brown. Image courtesy: Library of Congress
Henry 'Box' Brown
Henry Brown escaped slavery in a box shipped from Virginia to Pennsylvania. He arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts before joining the anti-slavery movement. More information.
 
The white house on Seventh Street belonged to advocates Nathan and Polly Johnson.
Nathan & Polly Johnson house. Photo courtesy: NPS
Nathan & Mary Johnson House
Nathan and Mary "Polly" Johnson housed several escaped slaves in their Seventh Street home, including famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. More information.
 
Sepia depiction of Daniel Drayton.
Daniel Drayton. Photo courtesy: Library of Congress
The Pearl Incident
After failing to free 77 slaves in the largest recorded escape attempt in U.S. history, ring-leader Daniel Drayton was imprisoned. Later pardoned, the captain settled in New Bedford and is remembered as a hero. More information.
 

Last updated: August 16, 2018

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