Note to readers: The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program is currently revising this webpage in order to reflect accurate and contextual ways to talk about slavery, freedom, and the Underground Railroad.
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While different meanings have been attached to the term Underground Railroad in different times and places, when the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom uses the term, it to references escape from slavery in the United States through flight and/or assistance in that escape. These escapes lasted from the beginning until the end of legal slavery here, and happened in the north, south, east, and west. The Underground Railroad represents one of the earliest grass roots movements in the United States in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While allies assisted in journeys to freedom, those who sought freedom are at the center of this story, because there is no Underground Railroad without freedom seekers.
Many labels for escaping African Americans were constructs of enslaving society or by paternalistic abolitionists. As such, terms discussing slavery and freedom from the period tend to reflect how the dominant society viewed African Americans and their efforts toward freedom. Instead, the National Park Service and its partners strive to use language that more accurately reflects both the inherent humanity of enslaved people and historical accuracy.
There is not universal consensus on what words are most appropriate to use when talking about slavery. In one example, some historians prefer to use words like “fugitive” to emphasize that when freedom seekers liberated themselves, they simultaneously broke state and/or federal laws. Others object to the criminal sound of the term, feeling that it unfairly maligns those seeking freedom through escape, or argue that it legitimizes the perspective of the society that upheld the legality of slavery.
As another National Park Service document, “Terminology and the Mass Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II” points out, words that a person uses reflect their personal experience, their depth of knowledge, and their worldview. The selection of particular words by an individual or by consensus within an organization may also serve ideological or political purposes. In addition, the use of specific words and our understanding of them changes over time. It is for this reason that the Network to Freedom has taken an interpretive approach to addressing terminology, one in which the topic is used as an educational tool in appropriate contexts.
A person opposed to slavery. Abolitionists were typically politically active and worked to eradicate the legal framework of slavery. They may or may not have acted on their antislavery principles by helping individuals escape from slavery.
Portable personal property. Chattel slavery equated human beings with livestock, furniture, and any other portable personal property. Chattel could be inherited, sold, or transferred without permission, in the case of the enslaved person.
This refers to an individual who escorted or directed 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.
This term is often used to refer to either individual or group freedom. For example, those enslaved in the District of Columbia were freed by an act of Congress in 1862, the Compensated Emancipation Act. The word is familiar because of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued in January 1863 which declared an end to slavery in states that were in rebellion against the United States . Individuals also attempted to emancipate themselves through escape or legal decisions.
This term is used in place of slave. It more accurately describes someone who was forced to perform labor or services against their will under threat of physical mistreatment, separation from family or loved ones, or death. For the general purposes of this website, the term refers to one of the tens of millions of kidnapped Africans transported to the Americas and their descendants held in bondage through the American Civil War.
Enslaved person emphasizes the humanity of an individual within a slaveholding society over their condition of involuntary servitude. While slavery was a defining aspect of this individual’s life experience, this term, in which enslaved describes but person is central, clarifies that humanity was at the center of identity while also recognizing that this person was forcibly placed into the condition of slavery by another person or group.
Enslaver versus Master, Owner, or Slaveholder
An enslaver exerted power over those they kept in bondage. They referred to themself as a master or owner - hierarchical language which reinforced a sense of natural authority. Today, the terms “master” or “owner” can continue to suggest a naturalness to the system while also distancing us from the fact that enslavers actively enslaved other human beings who were entitled to the same natural rights as themselves.
The terms slave master and slave owner refer to those individuals who enslaved others when slavery was part of American culture. These terms can imply that enslaved people were less capable or worthy than those who enslaved them. Using the word master or owner can limit understanding of enslaved people to property. These terms also support a social construct that there are people who should naturally hold power (i.e. slave owners, slave masters) and those who should naturally not (enslaved individuals).
Freedom Seeker versus Fugitive
Freedom seeker describes an enslaved person who takes action to obtain freedom from slavery.
The labels fugitive, runaway, and escapee were constructs of slave-holding society and patronizing abolitionists. These terms reflect how slave-holding society viewed African American efforts toward freedom and ultimately and take away their individual agency.
The term fugitive is linked to the various Fugitive Slave Laws (1793, 1850) passed by the U.S. Congress, and emphasizes that the fugitive was acting criminally to escape from bondage. This language was key in attempts to preserve the view that the law was on the side of the 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.
The freeing of an individual or group of enslaved African Americans by will, purchase, legal petition, or legislation. Some enslaved African Americans saved up from jobs for hire or sale of goods to purchase their own manumission. Slaveowners sometimes freed individuals as a favor or picked favored enslaved people to free at the slaveholder's death. Some 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.
Describes a community when used as an adjective or a member of a community when used as a noun of enslaved African Americans who escaped slavery and lived in a remote place like a swamp or the mountains. These settlements often actively assisted other freedom seekers. The Everglades and the Great Dismal Swamp were sites of maroon communities.
Operative or Station Master
An accomplice to escape by a freedom seeker. They might help arrange an escape, serve as a conductor, or otherwise help those escaping. If the freedom seeker was caught, the operative might provide a lawyer or money for fines and bail and/or arrange purchase from the slaveholder.
A stationmaster provided shelter or a hiding place to freedom seekers. They often 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.
Personal Liberty Laws
These laws for rights like habeas corpus, trial by jury, and protections 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 the United States v. Booth, the state of Wisconsin acted to nullify the decision of the Supreme Court whose southern justices found personal liberty laws unconstitutional.
As with enslaved person, this term is used for a person forced to perform labor or services against their will under threat of physical mistreatment, separation from family or loved ones, or death. For the general purposes of this website, the term refers to one of the tens of millions of kidnapped Africans transported to the Americas and their descendants held in bondage through the American Civil War.
Slave is a commonly used term to describe an enslaved African American, but one that suggests that the individual’s identity was more fundamentally as property than as a human. It can also suggest that the person accepted their enslavement as a definition of their own identity. Additionally, it leaves out the presence of an enslaving individual or group whose ability of enforcement through violence backed the system of slavery. The National Park Service uses slave only when necessary in a historical context as part of a quote, preferring enslaved person as a more descriptive, complete choice.
Formed by state militias and county courts or by plantation owners themselves, these groups were responsible for preventing crime by Blacks and for keeping enslaved African Americans in the place prescribed for them by slave-holding society. Members might be poor whites or wealthier property owners. Mounted on horses, they were often armed with guns, whips, and clubs, and were not afraid to be brutal. They stopped Black individuals and demanded identification to demonstrate that Black individuals were not freedom seekers. Slave patrols had the right to search slave quarters.
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.
The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program defines the Underground Railroad as the resistance to slavery through escape and flight.
Last updated: January 28, 2022