Dr. Kwame Nantambu

America's slavery experience : Underground Railroad

By Dr. Kwame Nantambu
March 26, 2007

Slavery started in the United States in 1619 when twenty Afrikans arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, aboard a Dutch ship. According to the 1850 census figures, there were 3.5 million Afrikan slaves in the United States.

On 1st January, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation thereby freeing slaves in those states that had rebelled against the federal government. Afrikan slaves were not freed in states that were still under federal control. Subsequently, on 18 December, 1865, the 13th amendment to the constitution freed all slaves in the United States.

However, one of the most phenomenal and historic milestones of this American slavery experience was the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad came about as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

In order to deter slaves from escaping and free citizens from aiding and abetting them in escape attempts, legislation was passed in Congress by southern congressmen. Such laws stipulated that it was illegal for any citizen to assist an escaped slave. Moreover, this Act demanded that if an escaped slave was sighted, he or she should be apprehended and turned in to the authorities for deportation back to the "rightful" owner down South.

It was further believed that the Act would diminish the incentive for slaves to attempt escape. The rationale behind this reasoning was that the slaves' realization that even if they managed to escape from their plantation, they could still be caught and returned by any citizen in America.

While the stringent laws of the Act were being enforced and the institution of slavery unabated, many abolitionists assisted escaped slaves regardless of the consequences. The abolitionists did not believe in the institution of chattel slavery and worked tirelessly to end it. These abolitionists, who were primarily composed of Quakers, ex-slaves and liberal-thinking citizens, helped to establish what eventually came to be known as the Underground Railroad. The term "Underground Railroad" was coined in 1831 when a slave named Tice Davis escaped from his master in Kentucky and disappeared into the free state of Ohio.

The Underground Railroad was an elaborate and ingenious system that helped escaped slaves make their way from the southern states up through the northern states and eventually into Canada and freedom. This feat was accomplished by secretly transporting the fugitive slaves from safe-house to safe-house, steadily moving north until freedom was secured.

The Railroad stretched for thousands of miles from Kentucky and Virginia across Cincinnati, Ohio and Indiana. In the northerly direction, it stretched from Maryland, across Pennsylvania and into New York and through New England. This was their "gateway to freedom."

The routes from safe-house to safe-house were called "lines"; stopping places were called "stations"; those who aided fugitive slaves were known as "conductors"; and in order to keep these terms as clandestine as possible, the fugitive slaves were known as "packages" or "freight".

The average distance needed to be covered by a newly escaped slave in order to reach a "station" was from 10 to 15 miles, but this distance shortened considerably the further north one got. At the "stations", the weary slaves were given food, rest and a change of clothing.

Indeed, it is estimated that the Underground Railroad "consisted of 3,000 members who, by 1861, helped 75,000 Afrikan slaves find freedom. Traveling by night and hiding by day, slaves moved generally by foot through swamps and streams to throw off the scents of pursuing bloodhounds (dogs)."

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), a runaway slave, organizer/ "conductor of the Underground Railroad", and also known as the "Black Moses", escaped from a Maryland plantation after the overseer dented her skull with a two-pound weight.

Harriet Tubman made nineteen trips to the South before the end of the civil war to rescue or "steal away" 300 enslaved Afrikans.

She was pivotal to the success of the Underground Railroad. She preferred to carry her own cargo all the way to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. She explained that she "could no longer trust Uncle Sam with the care of her people."

Harriet Tubman never lost a " package" or "freight." She strongly believed that Black people had a right to build a free world for themselves on American soil, preferably in the South. A great leader in the liberation movement/struggle, she risked her life on every rescue mission and was never without her loaded rifle.

Harriet Tubman was no cowardice and threatened to shoot any slave who wished to turn back and return to enslavement. In fact, she once pointed a gun at an Afrikan slave who was "reluctant to follow her to freedom " and stated emphatically: "Before I'd see you a slave, I'll see you dead and buried in your grave."

At one time, a $40,000 reward/bounty was offered for her head/capture. Her famous words are: "Forward forever, Backward."

Dr. Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies and University of the West Indies.

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