The Underground Railroad was a large movement in North America consisting of several individuals who worked together to aid enslaved men and women in their escape from their captors. The freedom network began in the 1830s; there were homes, schoolhouses, churches and businesses which became known as “stations” along the route toward the north. These homes provided temporary shelter for fugitive slaves before they continued the rest of their journey.
People like Harriet Tubman who helped enslaved Africans move from one station to the other were called “conductors” while those operating the stations became known as “station masters”. The Underground Railroad extended to Canada in 1834 after the latter had outlawed slavery. By the end of 1850, the network had helped over 10,000 slaves escape to freedom.
Most accounts agree that the stories of the movement would have been lost but for the works of William Still, who recorded the network’s activities. Sydney Howard Gay, a key Underground Railroad agent, also kept records of fugitive slaves but his records were only discovered in 2007 by a Columbia University undergraduate.
When historian and Columbia University professor Eric Foner saw the document, he realized that Gay had listed the identities of escaped slaves, where they were from, how they escaped and who helped them to do so. Foner decided to research more about Gay’s records, and this paved the way for a new book, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” which was released in 2015.
Thanks to research by Foner and others, it became known that a host of untruths has surrounded the topic of the Underground Railroad. Here are some common myths about the freedom network:
Enslaved people used quilted maps to navigate the route
The common myth is that slaves created “freedom quilts” and hung them at the windows of their homes to alert fugitives about secure routes north to freedom and the location of safe houses. “The problem is there were no set routes in the Underground Railroad in the South,” Foner was quoted by MPR News in 2015. “It was not a system like a railroad map.” A PBS report said messages were often given out at black church gatherings and prayer meetings but not via quilts.
The Underground Railroad contained underground tunnels
It is believed that many fugitive slaves who made it to the North escaped through tunnels. But Foner said that he has never actually seen any evidence of tunnels in the east. “People talk about them, they talk about secret codes, secret passageways. The funny thing is, in the 1850s anyway, most of the slaves escaped very much above ground. They escaped on railroads, they escaped on ships.”
Enslaved people fled via the Underground Railroad alone
Most of the enslaved Blacks who escaped were young men with a few women, and the belief is that they escaped alone. But Foner found from Gay’s records that scores of them escaped in groups, traveling on trains or boats. They received assistance along the way from Black people working in the maritime industry, including some in Southern ports like Norfolk, Va, according to The New York Times review of Foner’s book. Often, one would find family groups managing to escape together.
White abolitionists were the heroes
It was generally agreed that the Underground Railroad was successful thanks to the work of White people who worked on behalf of “helpless Blacks”. However, Black people were actively involved in the process. “In the South, [escapees] were helped by mostly black people, slave and free,” per a report by NPR. “When they got to Philadelphia or New York City, local free blacks assisted them all the way up. …
“The Underground Railroad was interracial. It’s actually something to bear in mind today when racial tensions can be rather strong: This was an example of black and white people working together in a common cause to promote the cause of liberty.”