By Tonte Spiff
The Underground Railroad was an interconnected web of individuals, made up of both African American as well as White people, who offered shelter and aid to slaves that managed to escape from plantations in the South.
The exact dates of the Underground Railroad’s existence are not known, but it operated from the late 18th century up until the time of the Civil War, at which point the efforts of those involved continued to undermine laws put forth by the Confederacy in a less secretive manner. The earliest mention of the Underground Railroad can be traced back to 1831, when a slave named Tice Davids escaped from the state of Kentucky into the state of Ohio and his owner blamed an “underground railroad” for helping Davids reach freedom.
A few years later in 1839, a newspaper in Washington reported a slave named Jim escaping before being captured, returned, and tortured. While being tortured, Jim revealed his plan to go north by following an “underground railroad to Boston.” Vigilance Committees created in New York in 1835 and Philadelphia in 1838 to protect escaped slaves from bounty hunters, quickly expanded their operations to guide escaped slaves. By the mid-1940’s, the term Underground Railroad was a part of the American vernacular.
Majority of the slaves assisted by the Underground Railroad escaped from border states, such as Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland, which straddled the Union states to the North and the harsher Confederate states of the South. In the deep Confederate South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made capturing escaped slaves an extremely lucrative business and as a result, there were decreasing numbers of escape routes, hiding places, and allies, which left fugitive slaves to act on their own until they reached certain points farther North.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was only the first of multiple acts to extend the powers of local governments in the apprehension of fugitive slaves. These acts were the reason why many fugitive slaves traveled to Canada, because Northern states were bound to extradite them to their point of origin if apprehended, and to punish anyone helping them. Some Northern states made attempts to combat this with Personal Liberty Laws, which were struck down by the Supreme Court.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was designed to strengthen laws previously laid out that Confederate states of the South felt were inadequately enforced. This update led to the creation of harsher penalties and set up a system of commissioners that promoted favouritism towards slave owners, and even led to some freed slaves being recaptured. At this point, even the Union states of the North were still considered a major risk for escaped slaves.
The Underground Railroad was comprised of people known as “conductors” who helped to guide fugitive slaves to freedom; hiding places which included private homes, churches and schoolhouses known as “stations,” “safe houses,” and “depots;” people known as “stationmasters” operated these hiding places. There were many well-used routes that were a part of the Underground Railroad that stretched West through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa. Other routes headed North through Pennsylvania and into New England or through Detroit, on their way to Canada.
Songs of Freedom
A lesser-known aspect of the Underground Railroad are the songs used to help guide escaping slaves to a life of freedom. Due to the role they played, these songs are known as “Songs of Freedom.” One of the most popular songs of the Underground Railroad was “Wade in the Water,” which is believed to have been used as a way to warn slaves to get into the water to hide their scent from the hound dogs, used by the bounty hunters who were on their trail.
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The use of subliminal meanings is nothing new to African-Americans. Author Arthur C. Jones states: “It is clear that the natural operation of mask and symbol, the prevalence of improvisation and the existence of a complex African-derived theological systems all combined to create conditions that supported the use of spirituals, in the secret service of the ongoing struggle for freedom, while also providing a medium for the expression of fervently religious commitments and convictions.” Jones’ statement is in reference to the struggles and prejudice African slaves faced upon arrival in the New World, and how they were able to find discreet ways to communicate and express themselves.
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Jones goes on to state: “In this context spirituals served different specific purposes at various times and places, an extension of the African tradition of singing to serve everyday functional purposes. There was no fixed meaning for any particular song; meanings were variable and fluid. At the same time, the archetypally spiritual dimension of many of the songs made them relevant to the human experience of oppression, wherever and whenever in the world it might appear.”
The Songs of Freedom are an aspect of the Underground Railroad that held a high level of importance in guiding and supporting escaped slaves on their road to freedom. Other songs to check out aside from “Wade in the Water” include “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Song of the Free.”