You are a slave. Your body, your time, your very breath belong to a farmer. Six long days a week, you tend to his fields and make him rich. You have never tasted freedom. You never expect to. And yet, your soul lights up when you hear whispers of attempted escape. Freedom means a hard and dangerous trek. Do you try it?
Today, I would like to speak to you about the Underground Railroad, an informal system that helped slaves escape to the Northern States and to Canada, before and during the Civil War.
Some say that the Underground Railroad may have begun as early as 1804, helping more and more slaves to freedom. But it was firmly established in 1818, after the War of Independence had publicized Canada as a safe haven for runaway slaves.
The Underground Railroad did not receive its name until around 1831. The name was actually inspired by slaveholders who claimed their slaves seemed to have been swallowed up by the ground and escaped on an underground railway.
The slaves and the people who aided them used many railroad terms as code words. For example, hiding places were known as "stations" or "depots" and the people who helped the runaways were called "conductors" or "stationmasters". Escape itself was known as "catching the next train."
Running the Underground Railroad became much more dangerous after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Hostile neighbors reported activities they considered suspicious. Visitors to, or members of a household, might accidentally betray the conductors to slaves catchers, who would then demand that the runaway slaves were returned to their owners. Strict secrecy was important because failure meant not only return to captivity and punishment for the slaves, but fines and imprisonment for the "conductors".