There was no underground railroad, so why was it named that?

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By 1850 it is estimated that around 100,000 enslaved people’s had made their way to freedom using the underground railroad. But what was it? It certainly wasn’t a metro line running through the states to Canada, in fact, it didn’t even make that much use of trains at all!

It was, however, a network, much like a railroad network, with various stops along the way, safe houses, safe places to hide and many many many people risking their own freedoms and in many cases lives to help get people to the great white north and other safe places!

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It was figuratively “underground” in the sense of being an underground resistance. It was known as a “railroad” by way of the use of rail terminology in the code. The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, and personal assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Participants generally organized in small, independent groups; this helped to maintain secrecy because individuals knew some connecting “stations” along the route but knew few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one-way station to the next. “Conductors” on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Church clergy and congregations often played a role, especially the Religious Society of Friends(Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyans, and Reformed Presbyterians, as well as certain sects of mainstream denominations such as branches of the Methodist church and American Baptists. Without the presence and support of free black residents, there would have been almost no chance for fugitive slaves to pass into freedom unmolested.

To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. “Conductors” led or transported the fugitives from station to station. A conductor sometimes pretended to be a slave in order to enter a plantation. Once a part of a plantation, the conductor would direct the runaways to the North. Slaves traveled at night, about 10–20 miles (16–32 km) to each station. They rested, and then a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way. They would stop at the so-called “stations” or “depots” during the day and rest. The stations were often located in barns, under church floors, or in hiding places in caves and hollowed-out riverbanks.

The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names “stations” and “depots”, which were held by “station masters”. “Stockholders” gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the “Promised Land” or “Heaven” and the Ohio River as the “River Jordan”, which marked the boundary between slave states and free states.

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<small>Image: Brooklyn Museum – A Ride for Liberty, Eastman Johnson [No restrictions or Public domain]</small>

I am of the opinion that when we learn about the times our people were enslaved that we put emphasis on the resistance, on the escapes and the hardiness of our people.

We were enslaved but we resisted, we fought back and with this image firm in our minds we can continue to fight injustice.

Has this sparked you to learn a bit more about the Underground Railroad?

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