Thursday, February 16, 2006

Prerequisite stopover during African American History Month: The Underground Railroad. All aboard!

Image attribution: "Bury Me in a Free Land": The Abolitionist Movement in Indiana, 1816-1865, Indiana Historical Bureau. Accessed February 19, 2006 at

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY - Countless sites and routes comprised it (click the respective links to access those of Harriet Tubman and another traced by Andy Cohen). Untold numbers of "passengers"*, stationmasters and conductors ** traveled and maintained it. Yet the Underground Railroad (also known as the "freedom train," or "gospel train") was not a particular place, vehicle or organization. Rather, the term refers to the loosely constructed, secret network of escape routes and supporters that helped intrepid African Americans to flee bondage in America. Their destination: freedom, a.k.a. the "promised land" or "heaven." (Click here for details about the Underground Railroad. Click here to read about the etymology (i.e., origin) of the term.)

"Before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free." (lyrics to song known alternately as "O Canaan" and "Oh, Freedom") (audio)
Participation in the Underground Railroad (the "first Civil Rights movement") was perilous for both escapees. and those who helped them. The freedom-seekers and their pilots often traveled on foot and with very little supplies through swamps, bayous, forests, and waterways, braving the natural hazards posed by wildlife and the environment. Slave catchers, their hunting dogs and reward-seekers also posed constant threats, even in the freed states. Moreover, escaping slavery was a crime and those who were caught faced severe penalties (as depicted in a 1759 Runaway Slave Ad and dramatized by Alex Haley in Roots: The Saga of An American Family). Even freed African Americans were enslaved on the slightest pretext and unscrupulous traders often kidnapped freedmen and sold them south into bondage.

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (lyrics and music to Harriet Tubman's favorite song):

Those caught breaking the law by abetting the "fugitives" also took great risks; if caught, they could be severely fined, imprisoned, lynched and--if black--sold into slavery. However, participants in the Underground Railroad heroically risked the odds. Patrick Henry's famous Revolutionary War cry on March 23, 1775, "Give me liberty or give me death!"--although expressed in far different circumstances--closely paralleled the lyrics to "Oh, Freedom" (a.k.a., "O Canaan"), a song sung by those who braved substantial perils to involve themselves with the Underground Railroad ("Before I'll be a slave I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free").

"I always tole God, I'm gwine to hold stiddy on to you an' you've got to see me trou (through)." - Harriet Tubman to fugitives.

Only a small percentage of slaves braved a "passage" on the Underground Railroad. And although those intrepid souls who did shared a common goal, their points of disembarkation varied widely. As the National Park Service explains at "Learn About the Underground Railroad," common destinations were free African American communities in the South, to the North and out west. Other escapees fled the USA entirely, settling in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and other foreign countries. The maritime industry and military service (from the colonial era to the Civil War) provided other popular avenues to freedom.

Steal Away (music), (lyrics):

Certain code words, secret gestures, stories, symbols and songs were employed as communications and guiding devices for escapees and Underground Railroad supporters. Click on the following links to learn the significance of lanterns, to read, "The Underground Railroad in Action: Communication and Codes," and to learn about other secret symbols. Click the following link to read the lyrics of some code songs. And click on the respective titles to hear code songs such as "Steal Away," "Free at Last, "Oh Freedom" (a.k.a., "O Canaan"), and "Wade in the Water"*** and to access other songs of that era via the Websites: Kentucky's Underground Railroad: Passage to Freedom, Timely Tunes, Voices Across Time and Coco Jams: African American Civil Rights (Freedom) Songs.

"Wade in the Water" (music):

It is impossible to document all of the facts and fates of those who with ties to the Underground Railroad. By necessity, the many details about the escape routes, identities of sympathizers and protectors, and "itineraries" of escapees seeking safe passage were cloaked in secrecy. Moreover, the informal support network spanned a broad spectrum. It included individuals and organizations representing many ethnicities, religions and socio-economic strata, and frequently relied upon those who provided ongoing protection and support as well as upon situational angels who provided spontaneous assistance.

"Roll, Jordan Roll" (music) - the title of a song that symbolized the border between slave states and freedom states:

Nonetheless, oral histories and documents have helped researchers to document some of the routes, sites, people and experiences that comprise the history of the Underground Railroad. Some of the heroes tied to this history include escaped slaves (e.g., Henry Bibb, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman), Native Americans, members of such religious groups as the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists. and outspoken abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Mary Ann Shadd and William Still.

There is a wealth of resources about the Underground Railroad. Among them are several extremely informative Websites, including:

Excellent resources about the slavery throughout the world and throughout history are available at the UNESCO Culture Sector site, 2004: The International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and its Abolition.
FYI, the acceptance of 360 MERIDIAN as a National Parks Service Network to Freedom Partner will support our "four-eyed" mission to inform, instruct, intrigue and inspire audiences, in this case on the subject of African American history and the Underground Railroad.
* Supporters often referred to passengers on the Underground Railroad using code words such as: "baggage," "bundles of wood," "cargo," "dry goods" (female freedom seekers), "freight," "hardware" (male freedom seekers), and "parcels," according to Owen Sound's Black History Glossary. In contrast, those who supported slavery referred to freedom-seekers as "fugitives."
** Supporters of the underground railroad were often referred to using the code words: "agents," "conductors," “a friend with friends," "guides," "pilots," "preachers," "safe house keepers," "shepherds," "speakers," and "station masters," according to Owen Sound's Black History Glossary and Underground Railroad: American Civil War History.
*** The "Wade in the Water" audio file link on this site is provided by Kim and Reggie Harris' CD entitled, Steal Away: Songs from the Underground Railroad).