The Underground Railroad as Social Policy

  • Victor EnoEmail author
Living reference work entry


Black People Slave Owner Black Church Underground Railroad Slave State 
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Definitions and Keywords

Underground Railroad - the informal process through which enslaved African Americans escaped the bondage of slavery from the South and northern slave states into freedom in northern Free states such as Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois,- and as far away as Canada; Fugitive Slave Act; Harriet Tubman; Emancipation Proclamation; Thirteenth Amendment, etc.


Imagine this scenario: Close your eyes and imagine having to hold your breath and being fearful of who to trust. Afraid that at any given moment someone could come and turn you in and the world as you knew it could come to an end. Now, open your eyes and you see yourself a free individual in another state or country! The Underground Railroad was the process through which enslaved African Americans escaped from the South and northern slave states into freedom in northern Free states and as far away as Canada. The process brought with it a lot of trepidation and the feeling of terror about the unknown -the escapees were terrified by the prospect of being caught by slave hunters and bounty seekers under the Fugitive Slave Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1850. But at the same they were spurred by the thought and expectation that, upon attaining freedom or Liberty, they would never be in bondage again and never be whipped again.

African American slaves had to continuously endure these conflicted feelings on their route to freedom. As Kathryn Schulz notes in an article in the New Yorker magazine (August 22, 2016 issue), slavery itself as an institution, and the arduous efforts made to recapture and re-enslave African Americans who struggled to wrest themselves from bondage, was a moral disaster for the United States and a terror for fugitive slaves. The obligation to return slaves to their owners was enshrined in the Constitution and in subsequent legislations (the third paragraph of Article IV of the U.S. Constitution stated that No person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or labor, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due). This constitutional provision was further codified in 1793 and enhanced by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The 1850 Act was one of the most draconian laws ever enacted in the U.S. It rendered impotent any Northern ordinances (that is, legislation enacted in the Northern states) that were designed to protect fugitives. It compelled citizens to assist in capturing escaped slaves and set harsh civil and criminal punishments for failing to do so. The Fugitive Slave Act also created a legal document that ordered a specific fugitive to be returned to his or her master that could not be challenged in any court of law, and established a fee system (or incentive) whereby judicial and law enforcement officials adjudicating fugitive-slave cases earned ten dollars if they decided in favor of the owner and five if they decided for the slave.

The Thirteenth Amendment did not result in the cessation of the institution of slavery nor did it immediately clean off the dark marks of the vestiges of slavery. The Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865, following the end of the Civil War, stated in Section 1 [Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction]. However, traces of slavery as an institution remained especially in the Deep South, and it took strict and vigilant implementation of the Amendment to completely abolish the practice of slavery and slaveholding. The Underground Railroad tells the story of the pain, anguish, courage, and bravery of enslaved black men and women who attempted to free themselves from the chains of bondage and the incredible faith and goodwill of a few white people who assisted them to attain Freedom and Liberty.

It is not known when the Underground Railroad movement first began but it most likely began in the early 1800s. The term Underground Railroad began to be used in the 1830s but no one really knows who coined the term. Some people attributed the term to a thwarted slave owner and yet others said it was first used by a runaway slave. It first appeared in print in an abolitionist newspaper in 1839, at the end of a decade when railways had come to symbolize prosperity and progress, and three thousand miles of actual track had been laid across the United States. In a formal sense, Frederick Douglass used a similar term in his 1845 autobiography – where he lamented that indiscreet abolitionists were turning it, (that is, the discrete and risky enterprise of helping enslaved Africans gain freedom) into an upperground railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe used the term in 1852, in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when one slave-catcher cautions another against delaying pursuit of a fugitive “till the gal’s been carried on the underground line.” In 1853, the New York Times reported that the term had come into very general use to designate the organized arrangements made in various sections of the country to aid fugitives from slavery into freedom.

The Underground Railroad consisted of homes and businesses that harbored runaways and provided them an avenue and escape route into freedom. These homes and businesses were known as “stations” or “depots” and were run by “stationmasters.” “Conductors” moved the fugitives from one station to the next. The Underground Railroad’s “stockholders” (who included free black men and women as well as sympathetic white people) contributed money or goods. The latter sometimes included clothing so that fugitives traveling by boat or on actual trains would not give themselves away by wearing their worn work clothes. Once the fugitives reached safe havens – or at least relatively safe ones – in the far northern areas of the United States, they received assistance to find lodging and work. Many went on to Canada. It was the case that sometimes a “conductor” pretending to be a slave would go to a plantation to guide the fugitives on their way. Among the best known “conductors” is Harriet Tubman, a former slave who returned to slave states 19 times and brought more than 300 slaves to freedom including her parents – using her shotgun to threaten death to any who lost heart and wanted to turn back. Harriet Tubman had emancipated herself from slavery in 1849 at age 27 after which she become a conductor of the “Underground Railroad”. Tubman became such an iconic figure during that era that Massachusetts’ governor sent her, at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, to spy on the South where her duties including serving as a hospital nurse and a support for the Union armies. Along the way she earned the name “Moses” for helping or facilitating freedom from bondage of so many black people. Another iconic figure in the Underground Railroad enterprise was William Still, a free black man who lived in New Jersey and also helped free a significant number of slaves from bondage.

The fugitives who participated in the Underground Railroad were people desperate of emancipation. The Underground Railroad went undetected because it was a network that operated in secrecy. Most of the information on the Underground Railroad was found out through word of mouth. The railroad consisted of trails and shelters for runaway slaves from the southern United States to the North or Canada during the Civil War. It is unknown as to how many people were involved or escaped fugitives but it was estimated that more 3,200 “railroad workers” (or fugitive slaves) escaped from the northern states to Canada between the late 1840s and the formal abolition of slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. It should be noted again that slavery was a historic tragedy and it took the Civil War to end it. As Christopher Densmore, the Curator of Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, has argued, slavery was ultimately extinguished by blood – the Civil War Densmore (n.d.).

Many of the Underground Railroad routes crossed several free northern states including Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Swamps and rivers provided escape routes for the fugitives (Bial 1999). One watchword used by participants was: “Keep your eye on the North Star.” By keeping their eye on the star in front of them, the runaway knew that they were heading North (as in the northern free states of the United States as well as Canada to the far north). The movement was made up of abolitionists who opened their homes and barns as safe places for runaway slaves. Some of the earliest abolitionists were Quakers, although side by side with Quakers were abolitionists who were more secular in orientation such as William Lloyd Garrison, one of America’s leading white anti-slavery activists. The Quakers were a religious minority who belonged to the Society of Friends who had once owned slaves but very early on changed their stance on slavery and slave-holding and viewed it as an evil institution. The Quakers generally received the most credit for resisting slavery with secondary acknowledgment going to the wave of evangelical Christianity that spread across the United States during the first half of the 19th century, in the movement known as the Second Great Awakening. However, not much attention has been given in the Underground Railroad narrative to the role of the independent black church movement in the fight against slavery and how it promoted the Underground Railroad. Historians have paid scant attention to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was established in 1816, in direct response to American racism and the institution of slavery, and which played a significant role in raising money, aiding fugitives, and helping former slaves who had found their way to freedom make a new life (Schulz 2016).

The prominence of the Quakers as helpers in the Underground Railroad was on account of their very early position that slavery was evil; and even though they did not believe in activist intervention to stop the practice, they felt that they had a religious duty or obligation to do something to help the enslaved. Densmore records that even before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, which while avoiding the use of the word “slave” required that “fugitives from labour,” meaning enslaved people, escaping from one state to the another, must be returned to their so-called owners (Article IV), and also more than a century before the infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford Supreme Court ruling of 1857, in 1754, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends told its members “To live in ease and plenty, by the toil of those whom violence and cruelty have put in our power, is neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice.” By the 1770s, all of the Quaker Yearly Meetings in North America were united on the proposition that the enslaved had a “natural and just right of liberty” and no Quaker should think to claim a human being as property.

Mechanism of the Underground Railroad

The participants and operators in the Underground Railroad faced enormous difficulties and dangers: being caught in a slave state while aiding runaways was much more dangerous than being caught within the Free states in the North. One of the methods for facilitating the escape of enslaved persons was by hiding them in attics of homes, in barns, and other secret locations from prowling bounty hunters who were hired by slave owners. The punishments included prison, whipping, or even hanging – assuming that the accused made it to court alive instead of perishing at the hands of an outraged mob. White men caught helping slaves to escape received harsher punishments than white women, but both could expect jail time at the very least. The harshest punishment- dozens of lashes with a whip, burning or hanging-were reserved for any blacks caught in the act of aiding fugitives. If someone living in the North was convicted of helping fugitives to escape he or she could be fined hundreds or even thousands of dollars, a tremendous amount for the time; however, in areas where the anti-slavery movement was strong, the “secret” railroad operated quite openly. Stephen Myers of upstate New York, a former slave, wrote in his own newspaper, Northern Star and Freemen’s Advocate, about his work helping other slaves escape. Myers became the most important leader of the Underground Railroad in the Albany area. “Vigilance committees” that formed within communities for the purpose of aiding runaways sometimes openly advertised their meetings. (In other eras of American history, the term “vigilance committee” often referred to citizens groups who took the law into their own hands, trying and lynching people accused of crimes, if no local authority existed or if they believed that authority was corrupt or insufficient).

In a nutshell, it took courage almost everywhere in pre-Civil War America to actively oppose slavery, and according to Schulz, some white abolitionists paid a price. A few were actually killed; some died in prison; others, facing arrest or worse, fled to Canada. But these were the exceptions. Most whites faced only fines and the opprobrium of some in their community, while those who lived in anti-slavery strongholds, as many did, went about their business with near-impunity. Black abolitionists, on the other hand, always put their life and liberty on the line: If caught, free blacks faced the possibility of being illegally sold into slavery, while fugitives turned agents faced potential re-enslavement, torture, and murder. Harriet Tubman indeed deserved to be called a legend or heroine of the Underground Railroad because of how boldly she faced those risks: first when she fled slavery herself; then during the roughly twenty return trips she made to the South to help bring others to freedom; and, finally, during the War, when she accompanied Union forces into the Carolinas, where they disrupted supply lines and, under her direction, liberated some 750 slaves. By that time, slaveholders in her home state of Maryland were clamoring for her capture, dead or alive, and even, publicly debated the different cruel devices by which she would be tortured and put to death when caught.

In addition to the heroic roles played Harriet Tubman, William Still, Stephen Myers, Frederick Douglass, and a large number of other black abolitionists in the Underground Railroad, two Quakers, Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine, also played a pivotal role in the Underground movement. It is estimated that the couple single handedly assisted over 3000 slaves and escapees within a short span of time. Levi Coffin is sometimes referred to as the president of the Underground Railroad. He and his wife used their eight-room Indiana home as a “station” before they moved to Cincinnati. Their home is now a National Historic Landmark in Fountain City near Ohio’s western boundary.

Social Policy

As a social policy, the Underground Railroad metamorphosed into a historic movement that liberated thousands of African Americans from the bondage of slavery. To the extent that the courage and perseverance of black people undergirded the movement there is a need to acknowledge and credit their place in history. Gara (1961) observed that the historical record of the Underground Railroad was always almost focused exclusively on the assistance given to freedom seekers by whites, particularly Quakers, and ignored the larger story of African Americans liberating themselves and the role of African American institutions and communities in assisting the fugitive. He called for refocusing the story on the freedom seekers and role of African American communities and institutions, north and south. This is because the Underground Railroad was not merely a physical structure but an interweaved network of persons with the heart and conviction to take risks to either initiate the risky enterprise of escape or help the enslaved to attain freedom. The lesson for social policy is that the courage and resilience and strong spirit of people can be harnessed to achieve common goals. Also, the institutional support of the black church was critical to the success of the movement. There is no doubt that the black church has been a place of gathering that, historically, had brought succor, comfort, and hope to suffering black people. The black church built solidarity and keen spirit among the enslaved and has been a powerful force and resource for social service delivery for vulnerable and disadvantaged people and it also served as a platform for political education and participation of black people in the political process.


  1. Bial R (1999) The underground railroad. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Densmore C (n.d.) Quakers and the underground railroad: myths and realities. In: Quakers of slavery. Accessed 19 Oct 2016 at:
  3. Gara L (1961) The liberty line: the legend of the underground railroad. University of Kentucky Press, LexingtonGoogle Scholar
  4. Schulz K (2016). The Perilous Lure of the underground railroad. In the New Yorker, August 2016 issue. Accessed 20 Oct 2016 at

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History & Political ScienceFlorida Agricultural & Mechanical UniversityTallahasseeUSA