The Beginning of the Underground Railroad During the years prior to the Civil War, many people in the United States greatly opposed slavery. Far from being passive victims waiting to be rescued, enslaved blacks never ceased in their struggle for freedom. From the moment Africans were captured in the interior and coastlands of West Africa, to the time they were sold as slaves in the Caribbean and the new colonies of North America, black slaves acted as aggressively as possible to maintain their own African heritage and seek freedom. 1 Drawing on their cultural strengths and traditions, Africans survived, resisted, and escaped. There is no time during the history of slavery in America that enslaved blacks did not resist, in whatever way circumstances would allow.
Thus, their efforts laid the first tracks of the Underground Railroad. 2 The Underground Railroad is the continuation of the compelling story of resistance and struggle of slaves in their quest for freedom. The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, but a secret network of safe houses and antislavery activists -black, white, and Native American- who helped slaves escape to freedom. The Underground Railroad was, in fact, an informal yet intricate network of routes leading north, eventually to Canada. By virtue of its covert nature, the Underground Railroad was also the story of codes and secrets involving cunning systems of visual and oral communication, known only to those involved and reflecting the indomitable spirit of people's resistance to slavery and desire to be free.
3 Consequently, there were many groups and individuals who took the time to help slaves. These groups sometimes risked their lives, and the lives of slaves to help them to freedom. Among the main groups of people, who helped slaves escape from bondage were Members of the Society of Religious Friends, commonly called Quakers. The Underground Railroad held a certain idealism that motivated Quakers to join in helping slaves escape from bondage. The story of the Underground Railroad is part of the much larger story of the personal and cultural survival of these proud African America people brought to America against their will. From the first moments slaves were kidnapped from their homeland, shackled and put aboard ship for the Americas, Africans plotted their escape.
4 Paralleling the slaves struggle for freedom were the efforts of North American colonists attempting to free themselves from the oppression of English tyranny. 5 Consequently, a chain of attempts to escape from slavery created what was called the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad did not receive its name until around 1831 when slave catchers were unable to catch a runaway slave named Tice Davis and said, He must have gone on an underground road. 6 Ultimately road was changed to railroad in honor of the steam trains that were revolutionizing the North. The name added to the mystery because the railroad ran without trains or rails.
And from then on, the Underground Railroad remained a permanent name for this anti-slavery movement. The railroad was most active in the sixty years before the Civil War, when there were over 3,200 workers on the railroad, many of whom were blacks. 7 From 1830 to 1865, the Underground Railroad reached its peak as abolitionists and sympathizers who condemned human bondage aided large numbers and bondsmen to freedom. 8 Not all abolitionists favored aiding fugitive slaves, and some believed that money and energy should go to political action. However, those who where involved, the Underground Railroad provided them the opportunity and assistance for escaping slavery and finding freedom.
As Charles H. Blocks on describes in his National Geographic article Escape from Slavery: The Underground Railroad, it was a network of paths through the woods and fields, river crossings, boats and ships, trains and wagons, all haunted by the specter of recapture. 9 Life for a runaway slave was full of hazards. No one knew the entire system because it had to operate in such secrecy. The less one knew, the less on could reveal. As a part of the Compromise of 1850, a new Fugitive Slave Act was passed that made it both possible and profitable to hire slave catchers to find and arrest runaways. Because of the dangers involved, records were seldom kept and others were destroyed.
Homes, churches, and schoolhouses serves as hiding places called stations, depots, or safe houses, operated by stationmasters. 10 The journey to freedom meant traveling only a few miles at night, using the North Star as a map and trying to avoid search parties. 11 Since they could carry little food, they had to make their journey weakened by hunger. During the 1830's and 1840's, the dangers in running the Underground Railroad increased. 12 Escaping slaves were gripped by fear that they might be caught and beaten, then returned to even harder labor. Hostile neighbors reported activities they considered suspicious.
13 The slaves' flight to freedom was made possible and facilitated by the courageous men and women who believed in the right of all humans to be free from human bondage. Some courageous men and women ventured South to encourage slaves to run away. Despite the risk of getting caught and killed due to the laws regulating the aid of escaping slaves, many, specifically Quakers aided the African American's to their freedom- even if it meant death. In addition, in spite of the long record of slavery in the annals of human history, the Quakers viewed it as barbarism.
14 Although Quakerism and Christianity are two different religions, Quakerism shares many similar beliefs and views of Christianity. The Views and Beliefs of Quakerism Although firmly rooted in Christianity, Quakerism has never had a fixed set of theological beliefs. 15 The Friends as a group had no written creed. As individuals they may be liberal or conservative; they may or may not believe in the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ. 16 Although Quakers has no formal written beliefs, the Quakers stood strong with their beliefs. With such strong and sturdy foundation of faith, Quakers were able to make their voice heard.
Quaker testimonies for equality and against violence grow out of a Quaker belief that there is that of God in every man. 17 Every person, according to Quakers, is worthy of reverence, and each has within him a seed which will illuminate his conscience and will help him grow spiritually. 18 A direct experience of God is open to anyone who is willing to sit quietly and search diligently for it, Quakers believe. 19 In addition, every person has the capacity for religious experience, just as he has the capacity to fall in love, but he must be willing to approach worship with an open heart, experientially. 20 Simplicity, pacifism, and inner revelation are long standing Quaker beliefs.
However, their religion does not consist of accepting specific beliefs or of engaging in certain practices; it involves each person's direct experience of God. One of the trademarks of the Quakers has been their insistence upon equality regardless of race, creed, and national origin. 21 With so much faith supporting the Quakers, it was inevitable that Quakers had involvement in the Underground Railroad. The Quakers involved in the Underground movement As early as the eighteenth century, the Quakers came to assist the fugitives, and so secret pathways of Underground Railroad were planned, with "stations,"conductors", and sometimes even travel vehicles; although most of the journey was made with foot.
22 Quakers were most outspoken against human slavery and involved themselves to a great extent in smuggling runaway slaves to freedom. 23 Many Quakers felt the desire to help escaping slaves on their way to Canada. 24 Because of the Fugitive Slave Act, aiding slaves in escaping was illegal. Even if a slave ran away to a northern free state, if the slave was caught, they would be returned to their owners. This Act made aiding slaves especially dangerous for Quakers, however very profiting to slave owners. Some owners had trained bloodhounds to hunt the scent of slaves, making escape life threatening to both Quakers and the slaves.
However, their firm belief in equality prevailed over any fear that came across their minds. The Quakers were willing to risk their lives to free slaves from bondage based on their strong beliefs in equality. Some devoted their whole life to helping slaves. However, no issues aroused livelier debate within the Society of Friends than the question of participation in the Underground Railroad. Thus, their overwhelming participation in this abolition movement.
The Quakers never officially sponsored the Underground Railroad; however, many individuals played a prominent role in the movement throughout our country. 25 One Quaker in particular, Levi Coffin of Cincinnati, was called the President of the Underground railroad, have helped some one hundred slaves escape each year for twenty years. 26 To the thousand of escaped slaves, an eight-room Federal style brick home in Newport (Fountain City), Indiana, became a safe haven on their journey to Canada. 27 This was the home of Levi and Catherine Coffin, North Carolina Quakers who opposed slavery. 28 During the 20 years they lived in Newport, the Coffins helped more than 2,000 slaves reach safety through all the hours of the day; day or night. 29 At the beginning of the more organized efforts that Mr. Coffin took part in to help fleeing slaves, his group was driven out of the main body of Quakers in Indiana, for a time.
30 After a few years, the opinions of the majority of Quakers came around to the Abolitionist view and the factions were reunited. 31 The fearlessness the Coffins displayed in offering assistance to the fleeing slaves had an effect on their neighbors. 32 Levi Coffin noted that those who had once "stood aloof from the work" eventually contributed clothing for the fugitives and aided the Coffins in forwarding the slaves on their way to freedom, but were "timid about sheltering them under their roof; so that part of the work devolved on us. 33 The incident by the side of the road marked the first awakening of Levi Coffin's sympathy with the oppressed, which, he observed in his memoirs, together with a strong hatred of oppression and injustice in any form, "were the motives that influenced my whole after-life". 34 Fugitives came to the Coffins' home at all hours of the night and announced their presence by a gentle rap at the door. 35 In addition to the help of Levi Coffin was Lucretia Mott, another great influential Quaker at this time.
Lucretia Mott was born January 3, 1793, in Nantucket, Massachusetts to a Quaker family. Her family was Quakers, and she became a Quaker minister in 1821.36 Mott's interest in the fight against slavery grew over time. She became more active in the abolitionist movement such as the Underground Railroad in the U.S. prior to the Civil War. 37 Mott helped found two anti-slavery groups, and was well known for her eloquent speeches against slavery. 38 Throughout her life Lucretia was active in the meetings and the committee work of the Society of Friends. 39 Anther famous Quaker abolitionist of the day was Isaac Hopper.
Although he was not a trained lawyer, Hopper became intimately acquainted with the laws governing slaves. 40 Isaac Hopper was absolutely fearless. Hopper had literally hundreds of adventures in his lifetime. Whatever hour of the day and night, he was ready to leap form his bed or his trade to answer the call of anxious and frightened Negroes.
41 Throughout these years he continued to be deeply concerned about the abolition of slavery, and helped promote a paper called the Anti-Slavery Standard. 42 Though several of his children resigned from the Society of Friends in protest, Hopper himself seemed to bear his meeting no ill will and attended regularly until he died. 43 Hopper was a truly devoted Quaker at his time. Also motivated through the idealism of Quakers was John Greenleaf Whittier. John Greenleaf Whittier was born in 1807 into a Quaker family on a farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts. 44 Whittier is depicted so often as the gentle hoary-headed Quakers that the fiery politician within him is often forgotten.
45 He declared himself an abolitionist in the pamphlet Justice and Expediency (1833) and went to the unpopular national antislavery convention. 46 He also worked staunchly behind the political scene to further the abolitionist cause and was an active antislavery editor until 1840, when frail health forced him to retire to his Amesbury home. 47 Whittier aided the Underground movement in both Philadelphia and New York. 48 Buddell Sleeper was another Quaker who operated a station in the basement of his home.
49 Buddell Sleeper, one of the prominent pioneers of Tippecanoe County, was a native of New York, born in Otsego County, July 29, 1806.50 In the pre-civil war days, Buddell was the leader in the enterprise known as the Underground Railroad. Many fleeing slaves from the South were secreted in his home and taken on to the North in the dark hours of night, to freedom. 51 Buddell Sleeper and his wife, Elizabeth, were birthright Friends (Quakers). The death of Buddell Sleeper occurred February 21, 1888.52 For slaves fleeing north through the Delmarva Peninsula, the last underground railroad station before the Pennsylvania line and freedom was the Wilmington home of Thomas Garrett, a Quaker iron merhcant. 53 In the year of 1820 Thomas Garrett decided to devote his life to abolitionism. Over the next four decades he helped more than 2,000 blacks reach freedom.
54 Slaveholders and their sympathizers repeatedly threatened Garrett with physical violence. In 1848 he was arrested for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law. 55 He was forced to sell all his property to pay the huge fine and was left destitute, yet he told the sheriff who conducted the auction of his life's possessions, Friend, I haven t a dollar in the world, but if thee knows a fugitive anywhere on the face of the earth who needs a breakfast, send him to me. 56 Thomas Garrett was honored, after the Civil War, by the blacks of Wilmington with a parade where they proclaimed him Our Moses. 57 In conclusion, many Quakers such as Levi Coffin, Thomas Garrett, Lucretia Mott, etc. show that the strong beliefs of Quakers prevail over the fears of helping slaves to reach freedom. Quakers aided slaves through secret routes that eventually ended in Canada and to freedom.
The idealism that motivated Quakers to make such risks was their strong opinion on equality and their belief of slavery being barbarism. The Quakers belief that there is that of God in every man, helped then realize that every human being should be treated equally, fairly and just. With this strong belief in equality, Quakers utilized their faith in helping thousands of slaves to freedom. The Quakers combined in numbers to recognize and protest the wrongs of slavery. Some Quakers risked their lives of getting caught, and those that do such as Thomas Garrett, lose all their life's possessions. In addition, laws such as the Fugitive Slave Law made assisting slaves illegal whether or not the slave was found in a non-slave state or a slave state.
However, nothing can break the sturdy belief system of some of these Quakers. Some devoted their whole life in this abolition movement regardless of the dangers and risks that were present-Quakers did this simply because they believed it was wrong. END NOTES: Tobin, Jacqueline L. and Dobard, Ph. D., Raymond G. Hidden in Plain View. February 1999, 53. Tobin, Jacqueline L. and Dobard, Ph. D., Raymond G. Hidden in Plain View.
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