THE YEAR is 1844 or 1845. The night air is acrid, as it always is in Madison, Indiana, with the smell of the slaughterhouses and tanneries that line the north shore of the Ohio River. It is almost ten o’clock, and in this era before electricity and street lamps, the darkness is profound.
The barber has done what he was told. He is alone on the street corner. He waits with the nearly killing anxiety of a man who is about to commit a crime. He is a slave, and he is about to steal himself.
The barber had been working in Madison, and sending his earnings back to his master in Kentucky, a common enough arrangement in the border states. He could walk away from the corner, he knew. He could go home, abandon hope of escape, get along somehow as a slave, and stay safe, in a way. But he could not forget George DeBaptiste’s words to him: ‘Aren’t you ashamed—you, a man able to make money, and take care of yourself, with a good trade, young, strong, and a man all over, if you were only a mind to be—to be calling another man your master, like a dog, paying over to him your wages?’
At ten o’clock, steps approach, and a black man slips from the shadows. He tells the barber to walk to the roadbed where the new railway is to be laid north from Madison. When he gets to it, he is to walk north until he reaches the post that marks the second mile, and then whistle twice.
The barber follows the instructions. He is leaving an entire life behind, and walking into the unknown. He is attuned to every rustle, click, and murmur of life in the night, straining for the sounds of feet in pursuit. It is a hard place for blacks, this southern edge of Indiana. White vigilantes sometimes attack blacks in their homes, in Madison. Slave catchers prowl the back country, hunting runaways. The barber knows, as every fugitive knows, that at any moment his break for freedom may turn into a disaster.
At the two-mile marker the barber screws up his courage and whistles. Another black man slips from the woods, with a gun at the ready. Walk another two miles, he tells the barber, and falls into step behind him. At the next appointed spot, a second armed man appears, and orders him to walk two more miles, with the two gunmen now following behind him. The drill is repeated four times, until the barber is surrounded by eight armed men.
Sixteen miles beyond Madison, instead of another gunman, there is a wagon waiting. Into it the barber climbs, and for the first time during that long night, perhaps, he begins to breathe normally again. Ahead of him lie the welcoming farms of white Presbyterian and Quaker farmers, of free blacks who do not fear the writs and guns of slave hunters, and his own freedom.
George DeBaptiste, the man who prompted the barber’s elaborate escape, who executed it, who ensured that even if the fugitive’s party was discovered it was carrying enough firepower to defend itself, was also, as it happened, a barber. He was also the secret head of the local Underground Railroad. In some respects, DeBaptiste was a very ordinary man, about thirty years old at the time, well known to everyone in Madison, as a respectable member of the town’s small free black middle class. Unknown to them, almost every day of his life, he tested the limits to which a black man would be allowed to go in the deeply racist America of the 1840s.
It was dangerous enough for radical white abolitionists to risk helping fugitive strangers, breaking federal law every time they did it. For a black man, who could never count on the law to be on his side, it was brave beyond imagining. For the underground, both opportunity and death were as close as the Kentucky shore. Madison stood on the invisible line that ran down the middle of the Ohio River dividing the slave states from the free as absolutely as if they had been cut apart by a cleaver. During his eight years in Madison, DeBaptiste estimated that he personally assisted one hundred and eight fugitives to freedom, and several times that number indirectly. Failure at any point could easily have cost him his life.
The name of the barber who escaped that night more than a century and a half ago has long been forgotten. His story still exists only because it survived in the memory of George DeBaptiste, who recounted it to a reporter for a Detroit newspaper in 1870, a few years before he died. But the events of that night were epochal, in their way. Another chip had silently been knocked out of the edifice of slavery, and another victory gained for the clandestine army that was changing America.
AT THE start of the twenty-first century, Americans are in the midst of a contentious, often painful, national debate about slavery and its role in American history. At a time when earlier remedies for inequality have been discarded as politically and practically unacceptable, as the historian of American slavery Ira Berlin has put it, ‘slavery has become a language, a way to talk about race, in a society in which it seems that blacks and whites hardly talk to each other at all.’ Modern-day racism’s roots lie in the slavery era, and any attempt to seriously address race today must also take into account not only the slavery of the past, but also the commitment and sacrifices of other Americans, both black and white, to bring slavery to an end. A better understanding of the Underground Railroad, and of men and women like George DeBaptiste, deserves to be part of that conversation.
The Underground Railroad occupies a romantic place in the American imagination that is shared by only a few episodes in the nation’s history: the Lewis and Clark expedition, for instance, the California Gold Rush, the Indian wars, and a handful of others. It is a term that is so instantly recognizable that it is today automatically applied to clandestine routes of travel, whether of downed Allied airmen from Nazi-held, France or refugee Afghans making their way to Western Europe from their war torn homeland. (During the Civil War, Southerners even used it to describe the passage of escaped Confederate prisoners southward from Yankee jails, with the help of pro-slavery sympathizers.) Yet its true history and its lasting significance are surprisingly little known. Because the Underground Railroad was secretive, and because much of its story has been forgotten, or deliberately suppressed, its memory has sheered away into myth and legend like no other piece of our history. To most Americans, perhaps, mention of the Underground Railroad evokes a thrilling but vague impression of tunnels, disguises, mysterious codes, midnight rides, and hairsbreadth escapes. And although residents of almost any town in the Northern states have heard about some old house or hidey-hole in which fugitive slaves were supposedly sheltered, few can name a single man or woman who was part of the Underground Railroad, apart from the inimitable Harriet Tubman.
The story of the Underground Railroad is an epic of high drama, moral courage, religious inspiration, and unexpected personal transformations played out by a cast of extraordinary personalities who often seem at the same time both startlingly modern and peculiarly archaic, combining then-radical ideas about race and political action with traditional notions of personal honor and sacred duty. For generations, Americans thought of the Underground Railroad as a mostly monochromatic narrative of high-minded white people condescending to assist terrified and helpless blacks. Only recently have African Americans begun to be restored to their rightful place at the center of the story. But the Underground Railroad is no more ‘black history’ than it is ‘white history’: it is American history, and it swept into its orbit courageous Americans of every hue. It was the country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement, in which whites and blacks worked together for six decades before the Civil War, taking great risks together, saving tens of thousands of lives together, and ultimately succeeding together in one of the most ambitious political undertakings in American history. Their collective experience is, if anything, an even greater record of personal bravery and self-sacrifice than is generally known. In border areas, underground agents faced the constant danger of punitive litigation, personal violence, and possible death. In an era when emancipation seemed subversive and outlandish to most Americans, the men and women of the underground defied society’s standards on a daily basis, inspired by a sense of spiritual imperative, moral conviction, and, especially on the part of African American activists, a fierce visceral passion for freedom.
Beginning with a handful of members around Philadelphia at the turn of the nineteenth century, by the 1850s the underground had developed into a diverse, flexible, and interlocking system with thousands of activists reaching from the upper South to Canada. In practice, the underground was a model of democracy in action, operating in most areas with a minimum of central direction and a maximum of grassroots involvement, and with only one strategic goal: to provide aid to any fugitive slave who asked for it. While the forwarding of fugitives was the central purpose of the underground, it also incorporated a broader infrastructure of itinerant preachers, teamsters, and pedlars who carried messages for the underground into the South, slaves who themselves never fled but provided information regarding escape routes to those who did, sailors and ships’ stewards who concealed runaways on their vessels, lawyers who were willing to defend fugitives and those who were accused of harboring them, businessmen who provided needed funds, as well as an even wider pool of family members, friends, and fellow parishioners who although they might never engage personally in illegal activity, protected those who did and made it possible for them to continue their work. Although cell-like in structure, the underground resembled the Communist Party much less than it did the present-day Internet. Where danger was immediate and proslavery forces strong, few who were involved in the underground knew the names of collaborators farther away than the next town or two. In ardently abolitionist areas, however, it was less a secret movement than it was a public one that kept its activities secret only from its enemies. ‘The method of operating was not uniform but adapted to the requirements of each case,’ as Isaac Beck, an underground station master in southern Ohio, put it. ‘There was no regular organization, no constitution, no officers, no laws or agreement or rule except the ’˜Golden Rule,’ and every man did what seemed right in his own eyes.’
The Underground Railroad’s impact on the antebellum United States was profound. Apart from sporadic slave rebellions, only the Underground Railroad physically resisted the repressive laws that held slaves in bondage. The nation’s first great movement of civil disobedience since the American Revolution, it engaged thousands of citizens in the active subversion of federal law and the prevailing mores of their communities, and for the first time asserted the principle of personal, active responsibility for others’ human rights. By provoking fear and anger in the South, and prompting the enactment of draconian legislation that eroded the rights of white Americans, the Underground Railroad was a direct contributing cause of the Civil War. It also gave many African Americans their first experience in politics and organizational management. And in an era when proslavery ideologues stridently asserted that blacks were better off in slavery because they lacked the basic intelligence, and even the biological ability, to take care of themselves, the Underground Railroad offered repeated proof of their courage and initiative.
The Underground Railroad, and the broader abolition movement of which it was a part, were also a seedbed of American feminism. ‘Woman [is] more fully identified with the slave than man can possibly be,’ Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first national leader of the women’s movement declared. ‘For while the man is born to do whatever he can, for the woman and the Negro there is no such privilege.’ In the underground, women were for the first time participants in a political movement on an equal plane with men, sheltering and clothing fugitive slaves, serving as guides, risking reprisals against their families, and publicly insisting that their voices be heard.
LIKE MOST Americans, probably, I first heard of the Underground Railroad in the form of legend. Near the community in suburban Westchester County, New York where I was raised there was (and still is) a mainly African American neighborhood which, a local story held, had been settled by fugitive slaves before the Civil War. Prosaic a place though it was in appearance —a few blocks of tar-shingled row houses, and small, unadorned little split-levels—it held a fascination for me as a symbol of a time of heroes long past. My mother, herself an activist as the national director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, more than once cited the neighborhood’s supposed fugitive founders as proof of the power of individuals to defy injustice, and to shape the world they lived in for the better.
Over the years, I thought about the Underground Railroad from time to time. But the subject always had something impenetrable about it behind the hard sheen of myth: the stories often seemed too polished, the hideaways improbable, and the central protagonists, the fugitives themselves, frustratingly beyond reach. I knew something about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who were among the tiny handful of African Americans who turned up in school curriculums in the 1950s. But they seemed to exist in a virtual vacuum, at least as far as the Underground Railroad was concerned. In time, I came across other, totally unfamiliar names connected with the underground—Isaac Hopper, Levi Coffin, Jermain Loguen, and George DeBaptiste, to name just a few—whose stories, once I heard them, were astonishing in both their dramatic intensity, and their political significance. How, I wondered, could they simply have been forgotten? Yet they remained almost completely unknown, outside a very small world of professional historians and researchers. I remained intrigued, and began picking up pieces of underground history, like precious found objects, wherever I encountered them, in upstate New York hamlets, in North Carolina, and Ohio, as far west as Kansas.
In June 1998, amid newly mown fields that stretched across the vast flat landscape of southern Ontario, I stood on the site of the Dawn Institute, a school and refuge for fugitive slaves founded in 1841 by the remarkable Josiah Henson, himself a runaway who reached Canada after escaping from a plantation in Kentucky. The Dawn Institute was one of the terminals of the Underground Railroad, the ultimate safe haven for fugitives who had traveled hundreds of miles, mostly on foot, from Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and beyond. The site was marked by a small museum and Henson’s preserved home. His gravestone, nearby, was topped with a carved stone crown, a symbol of the freedom that he found in Queen Victoria’s dominions. I tried to picture the men and women who had found safety and hope there, and who had gone on to build new lives for themselves in freedom. Who were they? What had driven them to risk death and torture by taking flight? What had they left behind? How had they gotten here? Who had helped them across the blasted racial landscape of nineteenth century America, through the war zone of antebellum politics, a field of battle within which fugitive slaves had no power, few rights, and little hope for protection? This book began with those questions.
I have not written an encyclopedic survey of the underground. I have not tried, for instance, to identify every agent and conductor, or to describe every ‘station’ and ‘line.’ Nor have I attempted to chronicle the broader phenomenon of runaway slaves in general, some of whom found refuge in Spanish Florida and Mexico, and in ‘maroon’ colonies within the South. These stories are important to the history of slavery, but are peripheral to that of the underground as it was known to its participants, who understood it as an organized system of free blacks, slaves, and radical white abolitionists allied in a common effort to help fugitive slaves reach safe havens in the free states and Canada. I have tried to show how the underground came into being, how it operated, and, more than anything else, what kind of people—black and white, men and women—made it work. I have also tried to show that the Underground Railroad was much more than a picturesque legend, but a movement with far-reaching political and moral consequences that changed relations between the races in ways more radical than any that had been seen since the American Revolution, or would be seen again until the second half of the twentieth century.