The Underground Railroad is a greatly exaggerated image of a network of safe houses to help runaway slaves from the South make it into Canada in the 1840s and 1850s. A few hundred runaways did use safe houses. But after the Civil War thousands of people claimed their house had served as part of the system.
There was no system. Most runaways were recaptured but the fortunate few were aided by abolitionists and--more often--hidden by the black communities in towns just north of the Mason-Dixon line separating the free states and the slave states. A few hundred made their way to Canada, where they faced discrimination like the North, but where there was no risk of being recaptured and returned to slavery. The Compromise of 1850 required the U.S. government to return fugitive slaves, making the runaway issue highly visible in the emotion-charged debates leading to the Civil War. By far the most famous treatment was the novel and play by Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1854).
Image and memory
In the 21st century conservative right-to-life advocates invoke abolitionists aiding fugitive slaves to justify civil disobedience aimed at abortion providers, while liberals see in the Underground Railroad an example of interracial collaboration that speaks to the needs for better race relations.
- Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (2005), 540pp; uncritical popular history
- Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961), debunks many of the myths
- Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (2004)
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a museum in Cincinnati