Abolishing the Norm – Episode 2: Railroad Rebels

Listen to Episode   Duration 1:40:29

Harriet Tubman, circa 1885, by Horatio Seymour Squyur. National Portrait Gallery.

In antebellum United States, in the first half of the 1800s, chattel slavery was deeply embedded. It was an integral part of the socio-economic systems of the various states, and thus protected by the constitution. The ‘Railroad Rebels’ didn’t care. They knew that slavery was wrong. They were the ones who suffered from it, the ones who escaped from it; they were those who harboured fugitives, and who helped them move from servitude to liberty; people of all colours and classes who flouted the law on a daily basis, because their principles and beliefs demanded it of them. They are the heroes who would form what became known as the Underground Railroad, a loose, organic, grass-roots system helping fugitive slaves. It is because of them, that institutional slavery is now dead. And thank f#ck for that. Long live the Railroad Rebels.


Fugitive slaves fleeing from the Maryland coast to an Underground Railroad depot in Delaware, 1850 (coloured engraving), American School, (19th century) / Private Collection / Peter Newark American Pictures / Bridgeman Images

Thousands of slaves sought their freedom during the antebellum era. Most escape attempts would have been terrible; fear, discomfort and usually torrid conditions in which they had to hide on their way north marked their passage. They were hunted and, even if they out-ran their pursuers, there was potential danger in every person who saw them. Even once they’d reached a supposedly safe, northern enclave, their freedom was not guaranteed. When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was made law, everybody in the country was legally obliged to help catch runaway slaves.

Map from 1898 projecting believed Underground Railroad routes. Compiled from “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Willbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898 Source



William Still, image taken from The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur Henry Siebert, 1898, Macmillan.

William Still would become known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad”. The son of an escaped slave, he came to be the chariman of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. In the 1840s his office in Philadelphia became a focal point for fugitives fleeing north. If lucky, they would come under the protective efforts of Underground Railroad conductors and station-masters, and would be carried by the Railroad away from slavery. Many ended up sitting across from William Still, who tried to document their stories as best he could. in 1872 he compiled around 700 stories into a book; a resource that could be used by runaways to try and locate their family members or friends. This resource is still used today by people trying to clarify their ancestry.


Levi and Catharine
Levi and Catharine Coffin. They might not look very fun, but through their rebellious actions these two harboured around 2000 fugitive slaves in their home prior to the Civil War. They must have had the pro-slavery lot Quakering in their boots.

Quakers are often identified as fundamental agitators against slavery. It is true that abolition found great support and momentum in the principles and values of The Friends, and there were many Quakers like Levi and Catherine Coffin who were willing to actively flout the law by helping slaves. The general Quaker community did not escape division regarding the matter of slavery, however, and there were schisms wrought by different opinions on how slavery should be countered.

The Underground Railroad was truly multi-racial, in that it was most driven by free-black communities and the slaves who successfully escaped to within their midst. White abolitionists, of whom many were Quakers, provided a support network to the efforts of these communities. In the northern states, and in urban centres like Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, the Underground Railroad was able to establish sanctuaries within the ever more crowded cities, and also accessible routes to Canada, where slaves could find legal freedom.


Henry Box Brown had himself shut into a box and then hoped beyond hope that the postal service didn’t lose him in transit.

Reading list:

William Still, The Underground Railroad, Rev. Ed.. Courtesy of Project Gutenburg,

Levi Coffin, Reminisces of Levi Coffin. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Slave Narratives from South Carolina

Fergus Borderwich, Bound for Canaan.

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause.

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