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Underground Railroad (Hine, 2000)

Darlene Clark Hine et al., The African-American Odyssey, Combined Volume (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 195.
The famous underground railroad must be placed within the context of increasing southern white violence against black families, slave resistance, and aggressive northern abolitionism. Because the underground railroad had to be secret, few details of how it operated are known. We do not even know the origin of the term underground railroad. Slaves had always escaped from their masters and free black people and some white people had always assisted them. But the organized escape of slaves from the Chesapeake, Kentucky, and Missouri along predetermined routes to Canada almost surely began during the early 1840s, and even then most slaves escaped on their own. There never was a united national underground railroad with a president or unified command. Instead there were different organizations separated in both time and space from one another (Map 9-3).

More information exists concerning the underground railroad in the East than elsewhere. Charles T. Torrey, a white Liberty party abolitionist from Massachusetts, and Thomas Smallwood, a free black resident of Washington, D.C., organized it in 1842. Between March and November of that year, they sent at least 150 enslaved men, women, and children north from Washington to Philadelphia. From there a local black vigilance committee provided the fugitives with transportation to Albany, New York, where a local, predominantly white, vigilance group smuggled them to Canada.

The escapees, however, were by no means passive “passengers” in the underground railroad network. They raised money to pay for their transportation northward, recruited and helped other escapees, and sometimes became underground railroad agents themselves. For example, during the mid-1850s, Arrah Weems of Rockville, Maryland, whose freedom black and white abolitionists had recently purchased and whose daughter Ann Maria had been rescued by underground railroad agents, became an agent herself. She brought an enslaved infant from Washington, D.C., through Philadelphia to Rochester, New York, where she met Fredrick Douglass.

This was not an easy journey, and the underground railroad was always a risky business. In 1843 Smallwood had to flee to Canada as Washington police closed in on his home. In 1846 Torrey died of tuberculosis in a Maryland prison while serving a six-year sentence for helping slaves escape. Nevertheless, the underground railroad continued in the Chesapeake until the Civil War.
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