African American Studies Underground Railroad
Loren Schweninger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0077


The Underground Railroad refers to efforts of “conductors” and “station masters” assisting slave “passengers” to escape from bondage. The term itself was not used until the late 1830s, although Runaways had plagued the South’s peculiar institution from its beginning. In theory, the escaping slaves were helped from one point to another point until they reached their final destination in the North or Canada. By the 1840s the term was used often. In 1842, an Albany, New York abolitionist newspaper reported that twenty-six fugitives had passed through the city, and that “all went by the underground railroad.” During the 1850s, the term came into general use as newspapers in the North, including the New York Times, described the Underground Railroad as “organized arrangements made in various sections of the county, to aid fugitives from slavery.” Some of the accounts tell of secret passageways, sliding wall panels, hidden rooms in “safe houses,” and dramatic escapes, as men, women, and children made their way to freedom. Although estimates vary, during the thirty years prior to the Civil War probably fewer than one or two thousand slaves escaped from the South to the North each year, through their own efforts or with the assistance of sympathetic whites and/or free blacks. If they were fortunate enough to cross the Mason-Dixon Line they were helped by free blacks and antislavery or abolitionist whites. It is clear that the Underground Railroad was neither a highly organized system with visibly defined routes and stations to assist escaping slaves, nor a system that remained in place over many years. Instead, it was a loose collection of local efforts, mostly in the North, to help fugitive blacks who began the journey from slavery to freedom. Vigilance committees thrived and then disintegrated only to be reconstituted in succeeding years. Tens of thousands of slaves each year ran away for various reasons but only a relative few were successful in securing freedom, and even then, many did so by their own individual efforts. Assistance offered to them was often brief and sporadic and the whites and blacks who did provide support many times feared possible discovery and realized they were indeed lawbreakers and subject to severe punishment.

General Studies

Many general studies of race and slavery as well as the Underground Railroad do not fit neatly into the categories examined below. The first historian to ask questions about how much of the information about the Underground Railroad was myth and how much reality was Larry Gara (Gara 1961) who argued that the idea of the Railroad was more important than the reality. Gara claimed that it was a partisan propaganda effort to foster the popular belief that abolitionists aided floods of slaves escaping from the South. Other studies offer geographical guides of routes used by runaway slaves—an encyclopedia of the people, ideas, events, and places associated with fugitive slaves—and a few contain studies of the Underground Railroad itself (Calarco, et al. 2011; Hudson 2006; Pargas 2018; and Strother 1962).One volume, Bentley 1997, uses a dual biography of Thomas Garrett and William Still to examine the topic. Pease and Pease 1963, a study of blacks in Canada, contributes a better understanding of those who made it to freedom in the “Promised Land.” Gleaned primarily from antebellum newspapers and a few court cases Richard Blackett presents many vivid accounts of escapes, both successful and unsuccessful, as well as discussions of slave catching and the kidnapping of free blacks; the author also highlights the impact of fugitive slaves on national politics and clarifies how fugitives were aided by free blacks, fellow slaves, and non-Southern whites (Blackett 2013). These works, often emphasizing racial cooperation, examine the politics of the 1850s and the impact of fugitive slaves on the coming of the Civil War. In many ways, however, the basic questions remain unanswered and currently there is no historical synthesis of the subject using primary sources. Perhaps the best indication of where we stand at present is the recent publication of a best-selling work of fiction by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad has been fictionalized and mythologized—hidden tunnels, quilts revealing routes to freedom, attics and basements hiding fugitives; Fruehling and Smith 1993 examines the myth of tunnels to freedom in Ohio. Nonetheless some popular and public history information about the Railroad is accurate and can be found in National Park Service websites. Also, many general historical studies mention the subject and some discuss it at length. Among the best of these is Whitman 2007, which includes a substantial amount of material on the Underground Railroad.

  • Bentley, Judith. “Dear Friend”: Thomas Garrett and William Still, Collaborators on the Underground Railroad. New York: Cobble hill Books, 1997.

    A dual biography of Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker living in the slave state of Delaware, and William Still, a free black living in Philadelphia, who worked together as friends on the Underground Railroad to help bring slaves north where they could then be free. It is designed for young readers.

  • Blackett, Richard M. Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.5149/9781469608785_Blackett

    The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 denied escaped slaves legal rights if they were apprehended. In Making Freedom, R. J. M. Blacked focuses on those who made it to freedom, who assisted them in their quest, and how the workings of the Underground Railroad struggled against the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. The author highlights a number of escaped slaves and examines how they were aided by free blacks, fellow slaves, and outsiders who went south to entice them to escape.

  • Calarco, Tom, Cynthia Vogel, Kathryn Grover, Rae Hallstrom, Sharron L. Pope, and Melissa Waddy-Chibodeaux. Places of the Underground Railroad: A Geographical Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

    The authors offer a picture of where the Underground Railroad was located and how it operated, including routes and itineraries and connections between the various stations. They delineate the possible routes fugitive slaves may have taken by identifying the rivers, canals, and railroads that were sometimes used.

  • Fruehling, Byron D., and Robert H. Smith. “Subterranean Hideaways of the Underground Railroad in Ohio: An Architectural, Archaeological and Historical Critique of Local Traditions.” Ohio History 102 (Summer–Autumn 1993): 98–117.

    This article puts to rest some of the myths and fantasies regarding the Underground Railroad.

  • Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961.

    The romantic saga of the Underground Railroad is deeply imbedded in the American ethos, revealing a story of hope, deliverance, and freedom. This work examines the legendary nature of the stories and the elements of fact and fiction that have occurred in recounting its history.

  • Hudson, J. Blaine. Encyclopedia of the Underground Railroad. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006.

    By the onset of the Civil War in 1861, the Underground Railroad included members, defined stops, and set escape routes and employed a code language. From the abolitionist movement to the Zionville Baptist Missionary Church, this encyclopedia focuses on the people, ideas, events, and places associated with the interrelated histories of fugitive slaves, the African American struggle for equality, and the American antislavery movement.

  • Pargas, Damian Alan, ed. Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America, 1775–1860. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018.

    The anthology examines fugitive slaves in the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad in the Northern colonies and states, and black expectations and racism in early Ontario. The unique perspective centers on geography and runaway slaves.

  • Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1963.

    Canada became the destination of many Runaways, especially following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. This discussion of various communities in Canada West (Ontario) includes information about how fugitives lived and worked, their churches, schools, businesses, values, and attitudes.

  • Strother, Horatio T. The Underground Railroad in Connecticut. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962.

    This book traces the rise, organization, and operation of the Underground Railroad in one state. The author examined published sources as well as the oral tradition of descendants of Underground agents. He looks at the routes from entry points such as New Haven harbor and the New York state line, through important crossroads like Brooklyn and Farmington.

  • Whitman, T. Stephen. Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775–1865. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2007.

    This general study includes a substantial amount of material on the Underground Railroad, including the enthusiasm among some Marylanders against slavery, the ships used for transporting slaves out of bondage, and the work of Harriet Tubman. The author also examines the assistance provided by free blacks and whites in Baltimore to fugitives and the remarkable escape of Fredrick Douglass.

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