July 30, 2022

The Liberty Line: The History of the Underground Railroad

The Liberty Line: The History of the Underground Railroad

Many learned about the Underground Railroad in their history classes. Often described as a super secret network filled with tunnels and various stops along the route to freedom, the Underground Railroad has become a thing of mythic proportions. But would you believe me if I told you the railroad was not all that secret?

Join me this week as I dive into the history of the Underground Railroad. How did it come about? How successful was it?


Gates, Henry Louis. “Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad?” PBS. (LINK


Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad as Told by Levi Coffin and William Still. United Kingdom: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.


Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. United Kingdom: W. W. Norton, 2015.


“Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.” The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. 2008. (LINK)


“What is the Underground Railroad?” National Park Service. October 15, 2020. (LINK)


“National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.” National Park Service. May 16, 2022. (LINK


Tkacik, Christina. “In this small Canadian town, a descent of Black freedom seekers celebrates Harriet Tubman on $20 bill.” Baltimore Sun. Feb 11, 2021. (LINK)


Turner, Diane D. “William Still’s National Significance.” Temple University. (LINK

“Songs of the Underground Railroad.” The Harriet Tubman Historical Society. (LINK)


Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 



Hey peeps, welcome back. 


When learning about the institution of slavery in school, students also hear about the secret passage many took to secure their freedom, the Underground Railroad. The lessons taught almost always include the notorious Harriet Tubman and her brave treks into the southern states to help liberate fellow bonds men and women. And many are taught about the quote unquote secrecy of the network leading individuals to freedom. 


But what if I told you the underground railroad - and those who called themselves conductors - was not all that secret? And what if I told you the men and women who were held as property didn’t wait for the establishment of some secret organization to secure their independence, but often risked their lives in the pursuit of independence? For as long as the colonies and later, the country, held people in forced servitude, there was example after example of individuals choosing freedom. 


So this week, I am diving into the history of the Underground Railroad. What was it? How secret was it? And how many people successfully used the system to gain their freedom? 


Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this. 


In the run up to the Civil War, newspapers were filled of tales of slave escapes using the quote unquote underground railroad. Perhaps a reference to the emerging transportation method quickly gaining steam throughout the country, the underground railroad became an almost mythical path to freedom. However, though the phrase became part of the american lexicon in the 1830’s and 40’s, the act of self emancipation originated much earlier. Since the earliest establishment in the thirteen colonies, individuals claimed as property took great risks in trying to secure their freedom. I shared one well known example of a woman taking her freedom when I chatted about Oney Judge, the bondswoman who fled under the cover of night, removing herself from the household of George and Martha Washington. 


And though it is well known individuals consistently secured their own paths towards freedom, much of the detailed work of these men and women is unknown to history. Because their stories are lost, historians can only estimate the number of these freedom seekers who took to the surrounding rivers, swamps and fields to find a place where they would no longer be seen as someone else’s property. 


Even in the run up to the Civil War when the railroad was arguably operating at its peak, records are limited. As such, scholars can only guess at the true number of individuals who broke their bonds for a chance at independence. The lack of historical record is likely tied to the illicit nature of the networks that came to be known as the underground railroad. Many abolitionists, otherwise known as conductors, knowingly placed themselves and their families at risk in what one historian referred to as the first mass movement in civil disobedience despite the illegality of their actions. However, knowing the risks, many abolitionists avoided keeping evidence such as ledgers to deny any would-be slave catchers proof of their wrong doing. There is ongoing debate of how many individuals secured their freedom along the liberty line - as it was sometimes referred to. Estimates range from as high as 100,000, to less than half that. 


Whether it was 100,000 or 50,000, it was but a drop in the bucket when you consider how many were held in bondage during this time. By 1860 there were nearly four million people held as property. With a price tag affixed to the individual bodies and what they may be able to produce, the enslaved men and women were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing - combined. 


It should be noted that the underground railroad was primarily a northern operation. While we may have learned in our youth that there were secret tunnels and abolitionist conductors embedded in the south, the truth of the matter is that most who took their freedom were primarily on their own until they crossed the infamous Mason Dixon line. Because of this requirement on self-reliance, it was primarily individuals who resided in the upper south - who had closer proximity to free states - who made the journey successfully. 


But once in the north, Philadelphia was a hotbed of railroad activity. This is largely thanks to both the large quaker population within the city and the surrounding free black community - all of whom worked together to transport the runaways to a place of independence further north. As abolitionist Levi Coffin later wrote quote: “we had different routes for sending the fugitives to depots, ten, fifteen or twenty miles distant, and when we heard of slave hunters having passed one road, we forwarded our passengers by another,” end quote. 


Because Philadelphia was a well known area with abolitionist sentiment, those working as conductors did not have to hide in the shadows. Many within a community were aware of the activities and chose not report them or otherwise interfere in their activities. Writing about his experience as a conductor on the liberty line, Levi Coffin wrote quote: “they knew me well, and knew that I harbored slaves and aided them to escape, but they never ventured to search my premises, or molest me in any way,” end quote. It wasn’t just white abolitionists doing the conducting. Given the size of the free black community, it was often at the hands of fellow black men and women that those running from the bonds of slavery were able to secure their freedom. 


One of the most successful, and well known, black conductors was William Still. Born in 1821 in New Jersey, Still was the youngest of 18 children and was the first child in his family to be born free. Still’s father Levin worked to purchase his freedom while his mother Charity emancipated herself. In yet another example of the horrifying trauma of slavery, Charity fled her bonds in the middle of the night, taking only two of her four children - her daughters - with her. Having failed in her first attempt at escape with all four children, Charity made the heartbreaking choice of leaving behind her two young sons when she made her second attempt.


Still got his start by working with the Philadelphia Abolition Society as a clerk, but quickly engaged in the work of conductor along the liberty line. Doubling down on the risks involved, Still maintained meticulous notes of the individuals who arrived at his stop along their path to freedom. Understanding the danger associated with keeping track of the men and women who came to his door, Still carefully hid his records to avoid detection. For Still, it seemed it was his destiny; one evening a man by the name of Peter Freedmen appeared, asking for help in trying to locate some of his family. Upon conversing with Peter, Still realized the man sitting before him was none other than one of the brothers his mother was forced to leave behind during her escape decades before. 


Through analyzing his records and the accounts he later shared in his book on the Underground Railroad, scholars estimate Still aided closed to 800 slaves during his tenure as conductor, helping as many as 60 a month. 


But how did this network get started? In his analysis of abolition activity in New York, historian Eric Foner highlights that these networks evolved in response to the kidnappings of free and escaped black men and women from the north. As I have shared throughout the show, with the end of the international slave trade in 1808, planters had to come up with creative ways to maintain the required level of labor needed to cultivate their land. And as the cotton crop exploded, and their human property chose freedom, planters found themselves in need of more bodies to work the fields. As a result, many hired supposed slave catchers to journey into the north and recapture their claimed property. And of course since black bodies were assumed to be slaves until proven otherwise, many free black men and women found themselves living in forced servitude.  


This widespread issue of kidnapping led to the establishment of vigilance committees and organizations who worked to secure the freedom of many by taking slave catchers to court. These organizations tried to work within the bounds of the law, but given the uphill legal battle they often faced these committees were not as successful as they had hoped.  


In response, these committees shifted their approach. They would not focus on trying to win someone’s freedom, but instead help them in avoiding detection. Most of the conductors along the railroad had ties to vigilance societies and abolitionist organizations and became disheartened by the continued loss within the courts. And though these abolitionist networks collaborated to aid the transport of freedom seekers, there was no official meeting or charter outlining their activities. Instead, these loosely connected regional committees assisted each other in trying to secure freedom for the people who appeared on their doorstep. 


And how did people learn about these supposed safe places in the north? Word of mouth. There are many examples of individuals, usually young men, escaping to the north and finding safety only to return to the dangers of the south to secure the freedom of their loved ones. Secrecy was paramount; if owners had any sense that a slave was looking towards independence they faced severe punishment. As one example of the torture and danger faced by those who dared to seek freedom and were caught, one man had his hand beaten for being caught with a fake pass, quote: “laying the slave’s fettered hand on the blacksmith’s anvil, the master struck it with a hammer until the blood settled under the fingernails. The negro winced under each cruel blow, but said not a word,” end quote. Understanding that forged passes could lead to an exodus of their labor, southern states began passing more restrictive laws regulating their human property, such as prohibiting teaching the men and women on the fields how to read or write. 


Once determined to escape, the men and women had to time their actions just right and often traveled with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and occasionally a small weapon to help defend themselves incase they encountered slave catchers. In his writing on the Underground Railroad, William Still wrote about one such man who entered his station, quote: “William is 25, complexion brown, intellect naturally good, with no favorable notions of the peculiar institution. He was armed with a formidable dirk knife, and declared he would use it if attacked, rather than be dragged back to bondage,” end quote. 

Without a point of refuge until they crossed the Mason Dixon line, individuals often had to make their journey at night with only the north star as their guide. During the day, they had to make sure to stay hidden to avoid detection; this often meant trying to find caves or tall grass where they could lay low until the sun went down and they again had the protection of darkness. Some were so terrified of being caught they stayed out in the wilderness for weeks or months at a time, hoping to throw off any potential slave catcher. As a result when they were able to reach the north, many were emaciated and sick; their clothes in tatters. 


When they did arrive at the various stations, there was often a secret calling sign or special knock used to identify a conductor there were new passengers. While a majority of those on the liberty line traveled alone, there were several examples of large parties - some as high as seventeen - arriving at a station for the night. Given the fear of recapture, many enslaved individuals were hesitant to share their names or where they escaped from. They accepted the assistance, but often distrusted the individuals putting them up for the night. Regardless of their hesitation, the conductors worked with them to plan their next leg of the journey and provided new names for them to use to further avoid capture.


In the early years of the railroad, most freedom seekers considered themselves relatively safe in the northern parts of places like New York and Michigan. It was far enough, they believed, from the clutches of the plantation owners of the south and provided a sense of community as they settled into various free black communities. Once they were on free soil, they thought, all was fine and they could begin to build a life for themselves and their family. However, the hundreds of miles that separated them from their prior bonds proved to be insufficient with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. 


With the passage of the law, slave owners could now enter into any state, regardless of whether slavery was allowed within its borders, to reclaim their property. Quote:

when a person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the United States, has heretofore or shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due, or his, her, or their agent or attorney, duly authorized, by power of attorney, in writing, acknowledged and certified under the seal of some legal officer or court of the State or Territory in which the same may be executed, may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person,” end quote.


If you remember from prior episodes, I shared how the country was in a constant battle over the expansion of slavery. Many states in the north had outlawed the practice and put laws on the books stating whenever an enslaved individual was broughtly freely within their borders they would immediately be considered free. What the Fugitive Slave law did, in essence, was nullify these state laws. Now, throughout the United States, if any enslaved individual took their freedom they could be legally pursued and brought back to the south and re-enslaved. 


This law meant the free black communities of the north were at a greater risk and given the rampant practice of kidnapping, many black americans decided to flee the tenuous safety of the north for a more stable opportunity for freedom in Canada. While the Canadian southern border had black communities as early as the War of 1812, with the passage of the fugitive slave law in 1850, Canada saw their black population explode with thousands pouring into places like St. Catherines. Under British, Canada had outlawed slavery in 1834 and provided black men and women with the same civil liberties as their white countrymen. They were able to sue people in court, serve on juries and vote. But though they were treated equally under the law, black men and women often still faced racial prejudice with many Canadians being concerned about the loss of their property values and competition for work. 


Knowing that Canada was now the ultimate destination for those who chose to self emancipate, slave catchers would patrol the northern border trying to recapture individuals as they attempted to cross the border. Working hard to dissuade their human property from fleeing, many plantation owners would spin yarns about the horrors of Canada. They claimed the Canadian winter was severe and several months long and that the country was experiencing famine; anything they could think of to make the sweet pull of freedom seem less than ideal. Fortunately, this often backfired as many enslaved individuals began to question the validity of the stories being spun by their quote unquote masters. 


By this time, the slave communication network was vast, with literature and stories making their way throughout the southern fields. Even the songs they sung had hidden meanings, with many negro spirituals containing hints about the underground railroad. One such example is the song Sweet Chariot which describes how a chariot - code for the railroad - was arriving soon to secure freedom. The phrase swing low was in reference to coming into the southern states and the lyric carry me home referenced the ride towards freedom. This was apparently a favorite of the famed repeat conductor Hariet Tubman who spent years journeying back and forth to the south to assist others in securing their freedom. 


The underground railroad ceased its activities during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing individuals held in bondage in any state in rebellion. This prompted many black americans to flee towards union lines and join the thousands fighting to preserve the country and ultimately, finally outlaw the institution that had for centuries made them second class citizens. 


Years later, once the threat of danger had subsided and slavery was but a distant memory, William Still turned his collection of notes into one of the most robust accounts of the individuals who traveled along the liberty line. Nearing 800 pages, Still diligently retold the stories of those who ventured into his station, sharing their reasons for fleeing; who they escaped from; and how they managed to survive. Still worked the underground railroad for nearly 14 years and helped roughly 800 people, likely making his the busiest station along the line. 


To end the story of Underground Railroad, I will close with an excerpt from the conductor himself, quote: “now thank god we have no more slavery to oppress us. We have no more tyrants to flee from. The prison house and the underground railraod are things of the past. Let us not forget the days of our bondage, however. But let us keep constantly in memory the pit from when we were digged and the rock from whence we were hewn. That our children may see what their parents have suffered and stand up fully for God and for freedom while life lasts,” end quote. 


Thanks peeps, I’ll see you next week.


Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.