underground railroad

underground railroad
1. Also called underground railway. a railroad running through a continuous tunnel, as under city streets; subway.
2. (often caps.) U.S. Hist. (before the abolition of slavery) a system for helping fugitive slaves to escape into Canada or other places of safety.

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Secret system in northern U.S. states to help escaping slaves.

Its name derived from the need for secrecy and the railway terms used in the conduct of the system. Various routes in 14 states, called lines, provided safe stopping places (stations) for the leaders (conductors) and their charges (packages) while fleeing north, sometimes to Canada. The system developed in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Acts and was active mainly from 1830 to 1860. An estimated 40,000 to 100,000 slaves used the network. Assistance was provided mainly by free blacks, including Harriet Tubman, and philanthropists, church leaders, and abolitionists. Its existence aroused support for the antislavery cause and convinced Southerners that the North would never allow slavery to remain unchallenged.

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▪ United States history
 in the United States, a system existing in the Northern states before the Civil War by which escaped slaves from the South were secretly helped by sympathetic Northerners, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Acts (q.v.), to reach places of safety in the North or in Canada. Though neither underground nor a railroad, it was thus named because its activities had to be carried out in secret, using darkness or disguise, and because railway terms were used in reference to the conduct of the system. Various routes were lines, stopping places were called stations, those who aided along the way were conductors, and their charges were known as packages or freight. The network of routes extended in all directions throughout 14 Northern states and “the promised land” of Canada, which was beyond the reach of fugitive-slave hunters. Those who most actively assisted slaves to escape by way of the “railroad” were members of the free black community (including such former slaves as Harriet Tubman (Tubman, Harriet)), Northern abolitionists, philanthropists, and such church leaders as Quaker Thomas Garrett. Harriet Beecher Stowe (Stowe, Harriet Beecher), famous for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, gained firsthand knowledge of fugitive slaves through her contact with the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.

      Estimates of the number of black people who reached freedom vary greatly, from 40,000 to 100,000. Although only a small minority of Northerners participated in the Underground Railroad, its existence did much to arouse Northern sympathy for the lot of the slave in the antebellum period, at the same time convincing many Southerners that the North as a whole would never peaceably allow the institution of slavery to remain unchallenged.

Additional Reading
Charles L. Blockson, The Underground Railroad (1987, reissued 1994), compiles narratives of slaves and their rescuers, while his Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad (1994), provides information on extant sites.

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Universalium. 2010.

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