THE UNDERGROUND RAILWAY AS AN ACT OF RESISTANCE 1
Some novice scholars perceive the U.S.A underground railway projectas one of the regular infrastructural development projects. On thecontrary, it was a series of routes meant to smuggle slaves out ofthe United States to Canada. According to Harrold (2000), theactivity earned its name from the many secrets surrounding it. Thesmuggling of slaves, or assisting them to escape, was a punishableoffense. The conductors, therefore, had to devise a series of routesand secret safe houses to hide the slaves until they reached Canadaor other oversea countries. Most of the routes led to Mexico andCanada. The number of slaves who succeeded in leaving the UnitedStates was estimated at 100,000. However, the United States’ censusonly accounts for 6,000 individuals.
First, the underground railway emerged as a reaction to protestagainst the inhuman treatment the masters meted against the slaves.The cases of rape, whipping, flogging and killing were common on theplantations. Some of the slaves, motivated by the actions of theinfluential groups, felt that they could free themselves if only theycould devise a way to sneak out of the plantations.
Since 1758, the Quakers had raised concerns about the brutality ofthe slave owners. Their voices could not make a significant impactsince there was no law protecting the slave liberties (Harrold,2000). As the years progressed, the concerns and dissatisfactiondemonstrated by the abolitionists and philanthropists made the slavesaware of their undeserving conditions. Those who got the chance tosneak took the risk and made it to Mexico and Canada, but the unluckyones were caught by the bounty hunters, returned to their masters andseverely punished. The retribution of the slaves differed with timeand place. Tate (1998) provides that those who worked in plantationssuffered most since they were under the watchful eyes of thesupervisors. Those who served directly under their masters sometimesreceived more humane treatment than did their colleagues workingunder the supervisors. Teaching was prohibited in the plantations,and the slaves did not have the right of religious gathering. Therestriction would assert the superiority of the masters. The whitesfeared that letting the slaves meet would lead to a conspiracy todefy their orders and possibly devise a plan for running away.
The slave Act of 1850 is a prime example of the reasons that led tothe resistance and dissatisfaction in the plantation.The Actprovided for the severe punishment of slaves who ran away. In apublication made in 1850, there were various guidelines on how tomold an ideal slave. They were to be disciplined unconditionally, andthe masters were to enforce superiority. They were also required toinstill fear and deprive them of education and recreation. Eachcaptive was supposed to be helpless and dependent. Some of theslaves could do anything, including, risking their lives to get awayfrom their tormentors. The masters who did not punish errant slaveswere subjected to fines. To comply with the law, slave ownerspunished the slaves or directed their assistants to carry out thepunishments.
Additionally, the law pushed slaveholders who were compassionate tothe corner of punishing slaves after denied a choice. Some slaveowners were lenient and could allow their slaves several liberties.However, to avoid reproach from fellow slave owners, they sometimespunished their servants severely. The inflictions, which sometimesresulted in death, triggered the conductors to use secretive means oftransporting the captives. Still (1855) indicates that the bountyhunters seldom got wind of the routes or the safe houses used toshelter deserters. The masters of those who were, unfortunately,caught either killed or severely punished them to instill fear amongtheir colleagues. For example in South Carolina, the slave codesadopted by the masters allowed killing and public whipping of slaves(Fugitive Slave Act, 1805). Also, their houses were subject to weeklysearches for any weapons. In addition, to ensure that they wereentirely dependent on their masters, they did not receive paymentsfor the work done.
The free slaves, members of the abolitionist and other anti-slavemovements loathed the activities of their masters. However, without apolicy to quote in their efforts, their campaigns were mostlyfruitless. As Still (1855) indicates in his journal, the only optionleft was sneaking slaves out of the plantations. The increased numberof anti-slavery actions injected more sympathizers into the railwayresistance. Both whites and blacks could offer safe houses andresources for transporting escaping slaves (Still, 1855). The risksinvolved in the railway can be termed as the ultimate struggleagainst the inhuman treatment in the plantations.
Secondly, the underground railway was a resistance of the variousantislavery bodies against the slave trade and the severe punishmentof slaves. Individual slaves could not have succeeded in defying theorders of their masters. According to Harrold (2000), moving out ofthe plantations required resources and attachment with the externalworld. Since the slaveholders could not allow their workers out ofthe farms or in gatherings, they did not have any attachment to theexternal world. The free slaves and philanthropists were in aposition to finance and create networks to emancipate them fromcaptivity.
In 1758, the Quakers society became vocal in its activities. Themembers opposed the way the masters treated the slaves. Their actionsled to the conception of the American Abolition Society that was alsoearnest in aiding slaves out of the plantations (Harrold, 2000). Mostof the members were free slaves and some whites who werephilanthropic enough to go against the beliefs of the natives towardsthe serfs.
Still (1998) provides that the leaders of the society were keyplayers in the construction of the underground railway, and theyhoused slaves, as well as, financing their movement. One of the vocalleaders and founder of the society, Fredrick Douglass, was a freedslave, and he was aware of the mistreatment going on in theplantations. The radical nature of the group made its activitiesdreaded since they were sometimes violent. In 1822, America purchaseda land in West Africa for returning slaves. Tate (1998) articulatesthat, the anti-slave organizations took advantage of the free land,as it became a new destination for escaping and freed slaves. Theinfiltration of information into the plantations motivated the slavesto try their luck in escaping.
After the enactment of the Slave Act in 1850, the abolitioniststermed it as a “bloodhound” for hunting the slaves like dogs(Fugitive Slave Act, 1805). Radical abolitionists, including, HarrietTubman, intensified their efforts of ferrying slaves secretly to defythe Act. The underground nature of the activity remained a mystery tomost of the slave owners. According to Harrold (2000), Tubman’sactivities made a significant impact in the population of slavesmaking it out of America. The authorities put a $1,000 bounty on herhead. In reaction to the loss of slaves and their increased deaths,the slave owners began insuring them for as low as $2 per year(Harrold, 2000).
Thirdly, the underground railway was an act of resistance against theharsh codes and laws meant to contain the slaves in the plantations.The slave owners and authorities knew that with laid down policies,they could apply force without the perturbation of rebutting theopinions in the society. In 1705, Virginia passed a policy to killslaves who opposed their masters (Harrold, 2000). Consequently, in1712, the state passed a law of ‘no-leave’ for the slaves.Any slave found outside the plantation was taken as intending toescape. Such slaves could be severely punished. In 1724, slaveowners and authorities in the states adopted the capital punishmentfor slaves who intentionally or accidentally injured or bruised theirmasters (Harrold, 2000).
In Alabama, the 1833 law prohibiting any slave from writing forthemselves or their friends received a lot of criticism from the freeslaves and the abolitionists. Any slave found assisting a friend towrite would be ruthlessly whipped (Tate, 1998). Additionally, sinceit was a policy, the anti-slavery movement could do little to changeit. The only immediate action would be to smuggle them out of theplantation whenever there was an opportunity.
According to Tate (1998), the tobacco growing states of Delaware,Maryland, and North Carolina had equally harsh rules. In SouthCarolina, slaves were prohibited from possessing or carrying weapons. They could also not leave the plantation, unless, with theirmasters. Also, when being punished by their masters, they wereprohibited from retaliating in self-defense. The owners could alsokill any slave who refused to surrender to their superiority. Thecases of rape were, therefore, rampant and the slave ownersperpetrated such acts without the fear of going against any law.
The emergence of Free States supported the activities of theconductors. Although they were required to submit any escaping slavesback to their masters, there were many sympathizers among the people,and they operated several safe houses. The 1850 Act fuelled theunderground railway resistance as many slaves sought to run away.Abolitionists like Luther Lee and Harrie Tubman defied such policiesopenly, and they philanthropically supported the activities of theunderground railway.
In conclusion, the underground railway was an act of resistance fromthe slaves due to the inhuman conditions they suffered under theirmasters. It was also a demonstration of dissatisfaction with thepolicies adopted by various states to instill fear, dependency andinferiority among the slaves. The abolitionists, church leaders, freeslaves and other philanthropic individuals devised routes forsneaking slaves out of the United Sates. Most of the slaves ended upin Mexico and Canada. Although it was a risky business, a big numberof the slaves escaped through the railway. After the abolition ofslave trade and enactment of favorable rules after 1860, theactivities subsided and most of the slaves earned a second-classcitizenship.
Fugitive SlaveAct. (1850). Lillian Goldman Law Library. Retrieved fromhttp://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp
Harrold, S. (2000).On the borders of slavery and race: Charles T. Torrey and theUnderground Railroad. Journal of the Early Republic, 20(2),273-292.
Still, W. (1855). Journal C of Station No. 2 of the UndergroundRailroad, Agent William Still (excerpt), June 2-29, 1855. HistoricalSociety of Pennsylvania.
Tate, G. T. (1998).Free black resistance in the antebellum era, 1830 to 1860. Journalof Black Studies, 28(6), 764-782.