The Underground Railroad was a large movement in North America consisting of several individuals who worked together to aid slaves in their escape from their captors.
The freedom network began in the 1830s; there were homes 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.
With Harriet Tubman, William Still and Samuel Green being some of the most celebrated leaders of the movement, an abolitionist from Sandusky, Ohio, Rush Sloane, has maintained that the term “Underground Railroad” resulted from an enslaved man in Kentucky called Tice Davids.
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In 1831, Davids reportedly fled from his owner in Kentucky and decided to make it to the free state of Ohio. To get there, he had to swim across the Ohio River. His owner chased him to the edge of the river and almost caught him but Davids jumped into the river and began to swim towards the Ohio shore at the town of Ripley.
His unnamed owner got a small rowboat and continued chasing Davids, with some records saying that there were other slave catchers on the boat. Trailing close behind Davids, an account states that the runaway got to the Ohio shore at the town of Ripley just a few minutes before his owner. Yet, his owner did not find him. Back in Kentucky, his owner later explained the “mystery” by claiming that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.”
Even though historians are divided over this account, Sloane said in a 1937 New York Times article that the account was “as reliable as any.”
Davids might have received help from local abolitionists when he made it ashore and these people probably helped him to escape as was the case in Ripley, which was then a “freedom portal” for escaping slaves.
During the years of the Underground Railroad movement, hiding places included private homes, schoolhouses, and churches. These places were called “stations” or “depots.” People like 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 10,000 slaves escape to freedom.
Most accounts agree that the stories of the movement would have been lost but for the works of Still, who recorded the network’s activities. Still rescued around 800 slaves through his work with the Underground Railroad, earning him the title, “Father of the Underground Railroad.”
Penning down records of the hundreds of fugitive slaves he came into contact with, including the sacrifices they made to escape slavery, Still’s popular 1872 book The Underground Railroad remains the only first-person account of activities on the Underground Railroad that was written and published by an African American.
Today, his book, which is known worldwide, is important not only because of the records of Still’s incredible feats and the people he helped but also for showing that “Blacks had the intellectual ability” and were fearless individuals who struggled for their own freedom.