Honoring the Memory of the Underground Railroad

By Richard Dahl on February 08, 2022

February is Black History Month, and many communities use this time to commemorate their roles in defying cruel federal laws in the 1800s.

Those laws were the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, which allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves even if they were in a northern state that prohibited slavery, as all did by 1804. Even though the North had turned against slavery, Congress bowed to southern pressure and passed these laws.

Northern opposition to slavery escalated, and the result was the creation of the Underground Railroad, a secret network that provided a pathway to freedom for many runaway slaves. A 1998 federal law created a "Network to Freedom" program devoted to keeping this chapter of American history alive, but some communities choose to have their own local commemorations.

Here are several recent ones:

  • On Feb. 2, Manchester, New Hampshire unveiled a plaque commemorating the role that resident Ann Bamford played 175 years ago in helping 42 runaway slaves escape to Canada.
  • On Feb. 2, Wilmington, Delaware unveiled a historical marker dedicated to the family of Abraham Doras Shadd, who helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada.
  • On Feb. 3, residents in Brooklyn, New York, celebrated the protection of a building that was part of the Underground Railroad from demolition by developers.
  • A Cornell University website, "Voices on the Underground Railroad," recently launched, providing stories about the Underground Railroad in central and western New York.
  • The Canadian Mint just issued a new collectible coin commemorating that nation's involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The Historical Record

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad with trains and tracks but was instead a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to northern states and Canada.

The people who aided the slaves in their flight were often abolitionists, but they also included apolitical people who simply acted on the belief that they were doing the humane and moral thing.

The system operated secretly, relying on word-of-mouth communication because the risks were significant. Fugitive slaves could be returned to their owners, who were free to punish them. And those who helped the fugitives were breaking federal law and could face stiff civil, and even criminal, penalties — even though they lived in a northern state that prohibited slavery.

Employing the language of the railroad, the houses and other buildings used to provide sanctuary were known as "stations," and the people who guided the slaves on their journeys were called "conductors."

Slave Codes

The recent commemorations celebrate human courage and the best things in our natures. But when we study the Underground Railroad, the sobering reality behind its existence is difficult to ignore.

Before there were Fugitive Slave Acts, there were other draconian slave laws. Before the U.S. existed, all 13 British colonies allowed slavery, enacting various versions of colonial "slave codes" to govern enforcement.

These were rules establishing that slaves were property, not persons. They also set out the social controls that owners could use to protect themselves from the danger of slave violence. They were free to use capital punishment — whippings, brandings, imprisonment — to force obedience and discourage rebellion.

The slave population continued to grow, runaways had become an increasing problem for plantation owners, and Congress responded to their needs with the Fugitive Slave Acts.

The first, in 1793, authorized judges everywhere to decide the status of any alleged fugitive slave without trial. By that time, northern states were becoming increasingly anti-slavery, and the federal law met with resistance in the form of northern "personal liberty" laws that gave alleged fugitives the right to a jury trial.

A Precursor to the Civil War

By 1810, the first evidence of the Underground Railroad started to emerge, and southern slaveholders sought stronger laws. In 1850 they got it, with the second Fugitive Slave Act. This time, the law imposed heavy penalties on federal marshals who refused to enforce the law. Penalties were also imposed on individuals who helped the slaves escape.

The severity of the law prompted further blowback in the North. The Underground Railroad became more efficient, the abolition movement grew, and state "personal liberty" laws expanded. When South Carolina became the first to secede from the United States in 1860, it cited those laws as one of the grievances prompting its secession.

Four months later, the nation was at war.

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