A university lecture by a professor of American History

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Listen to part of a university lecture by a professor of American History

Professor: Now, one of the most interesting events, I think, in Afro-American history, was the development of the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. I guess you've all heard of that, right? Then you know that the Underground Railroad wasn't a real railroad- it just got that name, in about 1831, because at that time the new steam engines, the new steam railways, were becoming important in the US economy.

So, the Underground Railroad wasn't a railroad- it was a network of people who helped slaves in the South escape to the North, to the northern states and to Canada, mostly, but also to the West, to Mexico, and to the Caribbean as well. These people were black and white, abolitionists and free Blacks and various religious groups, and they helped slaves escape from their masters, they hid them in their houses, and they secretly conveyed them- by wagon, by boat, and on foot- to places where human slavery was illegal.

It's believed that the system was started by a Quaker, Isaac Hopper, near the end of the 18th century, because he had begun organizing ways to assist runaway slaves at that time. It's documented that, in 1786, George Washington- before he became the first US President- complained that one of his slaves was helped to escape by, quote, "a society of Quakers, formed for such purposes", unquote.

The Underground Railroad never was extensively organized, though. It was just an informal network of safe houses and secret routes and meeting points. The people involved didn't know any of the details of operations beyond those in their own immediate area- probably just enough to convey fugitives to the next station.

The participants used a kind of code, a kind of jargon, based on railway terms. The various hiding locations were called "stations", so the people who hid the runaways were called "stationmasters", and the people who guided them along the route, who transported them from meeting place to meeting place, were called "conductors". And the escaped slaves themselves were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo". One stationmaster, William Steel, helped hundreds of escaping slaves- as many as sixty a month- and he kept careful records, including individual biographies, that included these railway code phrases. Then he later published these accounts, after the war, in 1872.

Recently, some writers have claimed that quilt designs, quilt patterns, were used by the Underground Railroad as signalling devices, as signals directing fugitives to escape routes and so on. Supposedly, the quilts were hung out on fences or clotheslines in secret code patterns. And some other sources have suggested that some of the gospel songs of those days- including some still well-known spirituals like "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and "Steal Away", for instance- that these songs also contained coded messages to help guide the fugitives. But both of these ideas have been debunked by serious historians, who can't find any contemporary evidence for either theory.

In any case, the Underground Railroad was most active between 1850 and 1860, and it is estimated that as many as a hundred thousand slaves had already escaped to the North by 1850. Southern slaveholders became so worried about their loss of property that they persuaded the US government to pass a strict Fugitive Slave Act, which forced officials in the free states to assist slave catchers from the South, and fined them for non-compliance. This angered northerners who had otherwise been willing to turn a blind eye to the practice of slavery in faraway places, and now Vigilance Committees were set up in many northern cities to raise money, provide food and shelter, and help relocate runaway slaves. In fact, the Fugitive Slave Act became one of the main Union causes during the Civil War.

The Underground Railroad had many brave participants, including Harriet Tubman, a free Black who risked her own freedom nineteen times in nineteen trips into the South. But she succeeded in escorting some 300 fugitives out of slavery. There was Levi Coffin, a Quaker, who helped more than 3000 slaves escape. There was Thomas Garrett, a Delaware stationmaster who paid more than 8000 dollars in government fines for his violations of the Fugitive Slave Act. And there was Calvin Fairbank, who spent almost twenty years in jail for his anti-slavery activities. Just to name a few.

Of course, as we all know, the Underground Railroad suddenly became unnecessary, and it came to an abrupt end, with the onset of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Black troops joined in the war for freedom, and in 1865 slavery was at last gone from America.


What is this lecture mainly about?


Based on this lecture, who are NOT included as members of the Underground Railroad?


What did the code word "conductor" mean?


Why is George Washington, the first US President, mentioned in the lecture?


According to the lecture, why is the use of quilts as signalling devices not believed?


When was this system first called "the Underground Railroad"?