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Escape was one of the many ways that enslaved people resisted their captivity in the system of American slavery. The Underground Railroad was not literally a railroad. It was a network of people, routes, and safe houses that helped people escape from slavery in the south to freedom in the north. Today we'll talk about the origins of the Underground Railroad, the systems that helped people escape, and the people who helped along the route.

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#crashcourse #history #undergroundrailroad
Hi, I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black American History.

If you’re like me, when you first heard of this thing called “The Underground Railroad” as a kid, you imagined a vast network of steam engines that crisscrossed the southern United. States in dark tunnels surrounded by soil and rock.

These trains, I thought, carried enslaved people from the violence of their plantations to the freedom of northern cities. I imagined it kind of like the subway system of New York City…except with a lot less rats. Some writers, like the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Colson Whitehead, have even imagined this real-life train system in their stories, depicting the Underground railroad as something that traversed across the South, making stops in each state to collect enslaved people who had escaped and were trying to make their way to freedom.

But the reality is that, despite what 3rd grade Clint thought, the Underground Railroad…wasn’t an actual railroad, it was in fact something even more remarkable. It was a group of people, who used their homes, their heads, and their hearts to secretly help enslaved people make their way out of the South and towards what they hoped would be a better future. These were people, Black and white alike, who often risked everything to help people they didn’t even know.

But they helped them because they knew that slavery was wrong, and they wanted to play whatever small role they could in helping as many people as possible reach freedom. The Underground Railroad is an incredible part of American history, and it is also something that has been mythologized in ways that aren’t always accurate. But today we’re going to separate the fact, from the fiction.

Let’s get started. So, we’ve established that the Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual railroad, but it’s also important to know that even the metaphorical railroad wasn’t a centrally organized endeavor. There were no headquarters, no comprehensive maps, no Underground Railroad magazine.

Many people who we now view as a part of the Underground Railroad across the country, didn’t actually know anything about one another. The Underground Railroad was made of individuals and small networks of people working together amid the larger less-centralized operation. And while the Underground Railroad wasn’t a literal train, they often did use the language of train infrastructure.

The various stops and safe houses could be known as “stations,” the guides who led the escapees to different stations were “conductors,” and the folks who hid escaped slaves in their homes might be known as “station masters.” Harriet Tubman, among the most famous conductors, used this sort of language herself, saying in in 1896, quote “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track and. I never lost a passenger.” It’s unclear where the term Underground Railroad first originated, but it’s said to have first appeared in print in an 1839 newspaper. Frederick Douglas alludes to it in his 1845 autobiography where he expresses frustration at the abolitionists who have been talking about the network with such a lack of discretion that he says is turning the operation into “an upperground railroad.” See, Douglas thought that this might compromise the entire operation.

He wanted it to be something more covert, more…underground. Sometimes when people tell the story of the Underground Railroad what they imagine, and what some early scholars depicted in their own work, was a network made primarily of benevolent white abolitionists who helped escaped slaves who couldn’t help themselves. And while there were many white abolitionists who were absolutely involved in the system, sometimes this story can lead to many people ignoring or erasing the fact that it was mostly.

Black people who were a part of, and who led, the Underground Railroad’s efforts. What’s more, there were also differences in the consequences and implications of their work if they were caught. Many white abolitionists would face fines or public shame depending on the community in which they were operating, but for most Black abolitionists and escapees, everything was on the line.

They could be returned to slavery, tortured, or even killed. It’s worth homing in on one person who played a specifically noteworthy role in the operation. His name is William Still, and he came to be known by many as the Father of the Underground.

Railroad. Let’s go to the thought bubble. William Still was born in Burlington County, New Jersey in 1821 to Charity and Levin Still, both of whom were formerly enslaved.

He was the youngest of eighteen children. In 1847, William, who had moved to Philadelphia, was hired as a clerk for the Pennsylvania. Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

And when abolitionists in Philadelphia organized a Vigilance Committee to provide assistance to escaped slaves, Still became the chairman of the group and a leader in Philadelphia’s. Black community. He and his wife Letitia moved into a rowhouse that would become a well-known station on the Underground Railroad.

During his abolitionist work in Philadelphia, William Still helped nearly eight hundred enslaved people escape to freedom. But don’t get lost in the numbers. Each of these people had a face, a name, a story.

And each of those stories, was one that Still believed was worth preserving. So what he did was interview those individuals who escaped as they passed through Philadelphia and he kept meticulous records about where they were coming from and where they were going. He knew that such a detailed record could help reunite families who were separated under slavery.

These records eventually became a book published in 1872, known as The Underground Railroad. Records, which chronicles the stories of 649 enslaved people who escaped to freedom. To this day, it remains an invaluable resource for scholars in helping understand the context and methods of the people who escaped the claws of slavery.

And reportedly, Still himself said, quote: “The heroism and desperate struggle that many of our people had to endure should be kept green in the memory of this and coming generations.” Thanks thought bubble. Another thing I believed when I was younger was that millions of enslaved people escaped through the Underground Railroad to freedom. But that’s…not really true.

Scholars still debate the actual number. But the historian Eric Foner estimates that, between 1830 and 1860, some thirty thousand fugitives were at some stage a part of the Underground Railroad. But other scholars believe that the number was closer to fifty thousand—and some think it was, twice that many.

So compared to the millions of people who were enslaved throughout America’s history, tens of thousands doesn’t seem like that much. And to be clear, it’s not to say that their lives don’t matter, or that their success in finding some semblance of freedom should be taken for granted. Even just one person finding freedom is meaningful.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that huge percentages of enslaved people escaped because…that simply isn’t true. This is important because sometimes that myth can be used to mitigate our collective discomfort around this country’s history of slavery. If we can convince ourselves that so many people escaped then maybe it will let us feel a little bit less horrible about what happened here.

But we can’t let that be the case. We have to sit with the discomfort, and the existence of the Underground Railroad can’t be used as a way to run from that. Additionally, what was in some ways just as important as the actual number of enslaved people who escaped is the symbolism of what the Underground Railroad represented.

It was something that represented hope and possibility for many enslaved people, and also something that instilled an enormous amount of fear in enslavers. I mean, these are many of the same people who believed in Samuel Cartwright’s bizarre contention that Black people who wanted to run away were actually suffering from a disease, something he called “Drapetomania.” Cartwright mentions two potential treatments for “the disease”: treating one’s slaves kindly but firmly, or, failing that, quote “whipping the devil out of them.” The Underground Railroad is actually one of the reasons that many southern states were so adamant about passing the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, so that even if their enslaved human property escaped North, these Northern states would, by law, be required to assist the slave catchers and slaveholders in recapturing the escapees. If they didn’t there would be a significant fine.

What’s more, the way the judicial system was set up at the time made it so that the commissioners were incentivized to side with slave catchers, because they were paid $10 for a decision that confirmed a Black person as escaped property, and only $5 for a ruling that stated a given suspect was free. Another very important part of the story of the Underground Railroad is that while it focuses on people escaping to the North, the majority of enslaved people who attempted to escape actually did so by escaping to the Caribbean, Spanish Florida, Native American communities in the Southeast United States, free Black communities in the upper South, and Mexico. In 1829, Mexican president Vicente Guerrero, who was himself of mixed European, Native.

American, and African ancestry abolished slavery in the country. Subsequently many enslaved people who lived near the US-Mexico border sought their freedom in America’s neighbor to the South. Altogether, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Kathryn Schulz argues, those groups of people combined likely outnumber the people who escaped to either Northern free states or Canada.

I think there’s another important thing to say about the Underground Railroad. And it’s that when I was younger, I silently wondered why every enslaved person couldn’t simply escape slavery if they didn’t want to be enslaved. I heard the stories of the Underground Railroad, I heard the stories of people like Frederick.

Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Or even Henry “Box” Brown who actually snuck into a crate, and shipped himself to freedom on a 27-hour long trip from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia, PA. I heard these stories, and I found myself angered by the idea of those who didn’t escape.

Had they not tried hard enough? Didn’t they care enough to do something? Did they choose to remain enslaved?

On the one hand, it’s deeply important to learn about enslaved people who escaped. At the same time, sometimes we can unintentionally lift up only the stories of exceptional people or exceptional acts, in ways that implicitly blame those who cannot, despite the most brutal circumstances, attain such seemingly superhuman heights. And sometimes, this can take away a focus from blaming the system, the people who built it, and the people who maintained it.

There were other brilliant, exceptional people who lived under slavery, and many resisted the institution in innumerable ways, but our country’s teachings about slavery, painfully limited, often focus singularly on heroic slave narratives and Underground Railroad stories of daring escapes, at the expense of the millions of men and women whose stories might be less sensational but are no less worthy of being told. The vast majority of enslaved people did not escape. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t want to.

It means that they were part of a system that threatened them with violence if they did, that threatened their family, friends, and community with violence if they tried, and in which the specter of violence and separation hung over everything they did. But as we’ve talked about, resistance to slavery does not only include slave uprisings and escapes. It is the millions of small moments in which someone reclaims agency for themselves amid an institution that is constantly attempting to take it away.

The Underground Railroad is one example of how enslaved people tried to find their freedom, but it is not the only way. Far from it. Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next time.