Saturday, 27 September 2014

Underground Railroad's Role in Slavery's End...

Published: February 16, 2008 on Helium

The role of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in terminating slavery in the U.S. is comparable to the impact of a full scale, long running drama production. Imagine a cast of thousands, an orchestra with a rotating musical score, and a stage crew with names that didn't always make the drama programme. Take this drama production on the road; many roads. But then imagine this amazing production is never advertised. It's not on billboards, it's not in bright lights, but you may find a hint of something happening in a church newsletter or from the occasional rebel, drawing a curious crowd round a soap box. Eventually, such a drama, secretive or not, touches the souls of everyone and even can be instrumental in overturning old slave laws.

The Underground Railroad, (or the Liberty Line, or Freedom Line), operated sporadically as early as the 1500s (when the first Africans were brought to the New World Spanish colonies), and gathered momentum about 1800 with Gabriel's Rebellion in Virginia. But it reached a peak of high traffic from 1831, spanning 29 states, when a Virginian enslaved preacher, Nat Turner, and 70 followers went on a rampage, murdering 50 people and destroying property over a 24-hour period. The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 added more complications. It was illegal to keep freed slaves in the northern U.S. By 1860, the U.S. was facing a Civil War (with slavery a large cause of tension).

The Railroad was a network of humanitarians and rescuers (Indians, whites, but mainly runaway or free blacks) intent on fighting social injustices. They helped black slaves from the South find freedom in the North, and then further north across the border into Canada. Some slaves took the Underground south to Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. "It is believed that as many as 100,000 enslaved persons may have escaped in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, using this network of aid and assistance." The operation was illegal, but continued to the advent of the Civil War, and not politically satisfied until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, declaring, "[N]either slavery nor involuntary servitude ... shall exist within the United States."

Slavery may have been a grim side of U.S. history. But in the midst of that darkness emerged some heroic, memorable moments. It was as if a bad light on some parts of humanity had the role of turning a good light on others.

There are so many stories attached to this Railroad; many have travelled through oral traditions before being recorded. But here are some, representing the many roles the Underground Railway played in bringing slavery to an end in the United States.

1. The Underground Railroad Network gave freedom to those who desperately wanted to escape a life of bondage, but the thousands who used its services highlighted to the world just how poor and even cruel conditions were for black slaves. Without the existence of the Railroad, many would have perished with their stories unknown. The U.S. drama was now being played on a stage for the world to see.

2. The role of individuals associated with the Railroad
So many amazing people gave their life to freeing slaves. They came from all backgrounds, including shopkeepers, farmers, ministers and runaway slaves.

One amazing woman, in the latter category, kept returning to the South to help free more than 300 slaves. Her name was Harriet Tubman. And William Lloyd Garrison daringly published the abolitionist newspaper "Liberator" in 1831. Even though so many blacks were illiterate, to even know that someone supported their cause so publicly must have inspired many to keep fighting for freedom via the Railroad.

And "In 1838, the Underground Railroad became formally organized with black abolitionist Robert Purvis at the helm." His tour of England in 1834 had assured that the slavery situation in the U.S. attracted world attention and world disdain. His tour involved presenting speeches and raising funds for the anti-slavery cause. He was then able to orchestrate the Railroad without too much formal political opposition. Through Robert Purvis' efforts, a short future for slavery in the U.S. was assured.

3. The role of the Seminoles
The Seminoles were a group of native Americans living in Florida who refused to align with the U.S. So, by default, runaway slaves from the South found no hostility with the Seminoles. The Seminoles even helped the runaways build houses and plant crops. Even though these times of the Underground Railroad were fractured with several Seminole Wars with the U.S., slaves were attracted to Florida as preferable to bondage in the South. The Railroad, leading here, became a key voice to the world, highlighting further the deplorable conditions of U.S. slaves to world eyes and ears.

4. The role of religious groups
A number of religious groups supported the freedom of slaves at the peak of the Underground Railroad, but the Quakers in particular had a long history of anti-slavery. As early as 1786, Quakers were using their own homes (with hidden staircases and rooms) to help runaway slaves escape. Runaways were moved along from one Quaker house to the next.

Many believe this was the real beginning of the Underground Railroad. The heart of the Quaker community was in Pennsylvania. And it was here that many slaves running from the Maryland plantations were helped on their journey further north to Philadelphia, Lancaster County or New Jersey.

Interestingly, all Quakers denounced slavery, but not all supported the notion of the Underground Railroad. Directly breaking the law threatened the spirit of the Quaker community, even though most agreed that slavery was immoral. Many wrestled with this anomaly. But it was the sacrifice of so many discordant faiths, banding together in the Underground project, that gave the Underground a spiritual strength in numbers.

5. The role of key cities such as Rochester, New York
Many cities had a role to play in the Underground Railroad. Even cities in the south, such as Baltimore, quietly absorbed black runaways with free. But maintaining anonymity in such a hot spot was quite difficult, especially when the runaways sought work to survive. But Rochester, in the far north, was literally the last city in the U.S. before freedom was tasted for real. It had a leading role to play in the Underground movement.

Communities here openly banded together to raise funds for the Underground. Bazaars and dinners were conducted to raise funds; clothing and furniture were donated. And, of course, some simply made large and small donations of money. Rochester helped keep the dream of freedom alive for runaways. But, in some ways, Rochester (and other cities like her) symbolized far more. They gave hope that white and black people respected each other's identity. There was a hope that equality could be possible. Slavery had to end!

6. The role of music
Many songs are associated with the Underground Railroad. But interestingly, they were not so much about the Railroad as they were the Railroad. Songs became a secret code of communication. For example, many of these slave songs talked about "going home" or "being bound for the land of Canaan."

If you just heard the song, you might think the people were singing about dying and going to heaven. However, the people who sang were very clever. They were actually singing about going north to Canada and freedom." Harriet Tubman used the song "Wade in the Water" to warn runaways that slavecatchers were close and they should get off a main trail. So, the songs were a means of warning and inspiring the spirit to keep going.

In summary, the Underground Railroad's role in bringing slavery in the U.S. to an end was huge. It represented social, cultural and spiritual players in the drama of slavery and anti-slavery. Running from slavery was a dangerous business, best done furtively in the dark of night or in holiday periods. But the Underground Railroad ensured the reasons for running were seen, world-wide, in the light of day.

Unity in the face of adversity!
Humanity at its best when confronted with the worst!
Heroes like Robert Purvis ensured the world watched.
And music bound the runaways together in a bond of hope.
Slavery had to end!


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