The Underground Railway was the name given to the system by which escaped slaves from the South were helped, by free blacks and other antislavery northerners, in their flight to the North. Opponents of slavery allowed their homes, called stations, to be used as places were fugitive slaves were provided with food, shelter and money. This practice gained real momentum in the 1830s and it may have helped anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 slaves reach freedom.
On my visit to Maryland I met Harriet Tubman, who became famous as a “conductor”, helping guide slaves to safety, on the Underground Railway during the turbulent 1850s. Born a slave, she endured the harsh existence of a field hand, including brutal beatings. In 1849 she fled slavery, leaving her husband and family behind in order to escape. According to her autobiography, Harriet Tubman, The Moses of Her People (1886), she returned to the South at least 19 times to lead her family and hundreds of other slaves to freedom via the Underground Railway. Tubman’s activities became so notorious that plantation owners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture.
Tubman’s life was a testimony to the fierce resistance of African-American people to slavery, and she later worked as a scout, spy and nurse during the American Civil War.