Enslaved Africans in the Americas started to gain their freedom through diverse means. Many rebelled against their masters and fled to the North of America where they were granted freedom and pieces of land to work for a living.
Soon, slave masters began to lose labour, meaning that their production was affected. To bring in more hands on their estate to increase productivity, they devised dubious ways of capturing ex-slaves who had gained their freedom by travelling up north from the south.
Thus came the Reverse Underground Railroad, a household term among white anti-abolitionists who were recapturing freed slaves. The system derived its name as a counter to the Underground Railroad system secretly developed by some of the earliest freed slaves with the help of abolitionists. These secret paths served as escape routes into free states in North America and Canada.
The Reverse Underground Railroad lasted between 1780 and 1865. During the American Civil War, the system was at its peak as more and more blacks were forcefully taken into the war leaving just a handful of labour.
So how did the Reverse Underground system work successfully for 85 years until the proper abolition of slavery in 1865?
One of the most popular ways the anti-abolitionists succeeded in recapturing slaves was by paying vast sums of money to fellow whites in North America. These whites then posed as abolitionists willing to help. They went out to the secret routes where fleeing slaves were likely to pass and offered them food, clothes and the promise of freedom together with a place to stay and a piece of land. The desperate and unknowing fugitive slaves usually fell prey to this and would follow the fake abolitionist into their homes where they were kept hostage until their masters from the south came for them. Some of the slaves were also held hostage until they died or were resold into slavery to new masters.
The reverse underground railroad system also prevailed through the kidnapping of slaves already settled or who were still en-route to the North. This system was done through gangs or groups of kidnappers hired by anti-abolitionist. Many kidnappers also did for their interests. Kidnapped blacks were injured to prevent them from running away again. They were then sold off to new masters or slave traders who illegally took them out of America to work in other parts of the world. Kidnappers became known as black-birders. During the Civil Wars, they became very popular and feared. They raided small black communities, killing off many who resisted. Black Birders were very popular in New York.
Solomon Northrup was one such freed slave who was recaptured by New York Black Birders. He documented his experiences and published it as a book in 1835 as 12 years a slave.
The easiest way of recapturing slaves was by stealing children from their mothers. Children were vulnerable and easy to carry away in sacks or wagons. When slaves began to kill their kidnappers, black-birders resorted to kidnapping children randomly from the streets or by abusing their mothers and snatching them from their arms in their homes. The kids were then taken back to the south or thrown onto ships to be enslaved in Europe or the Caribbean.
By the 1830s as more free born slaves and fugitives were captured, abolitionists started to set up societies and committees to help fight for the rights of the slaves, but they were never entirely successful until the complete abolition of the slave trade in 1865.