What Was the Underground Railroad? - History, Facts & Route

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Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

In this lesson we will discuss how the Underground Railroad worked and why it was important. Learn more about the secret paths that many slaves took to freedom.

What Was the Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was not a physical railroad, but rather a secret system of paths, safe houses, and people that helped slaves escape from the South in the years before the Civil War. It likely started up around 1830 and continued until slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865. No one specific organization or leader took charge of the Underground Railroad, though there were famous figures who were part of it, like Harriet Tubman. Many of the people who wanted slavery to end, also known as abolitionists, participated in helping slaves make their way to freedom.

How the Underground Railroad Worked

The first step to joining the Underground Railroad was often the hardest. Slaves had to escape from their owners. Getting caught in the act of trying to escape could cost slaves their lives. Once they did escape, slaves needed to safely find a conductor, which was someone who would escort them out of the South. Because it was dangerous to openly speak about the Underground Railroad, common railroad words and phrases were used. For example, 'cargo' meant slaves, 'lines' referred to escape routes, and a 'station' was a safe house. Being a conductor was very dangerous. Conductors were often also escaped slaves, so returning back to the South meant they were risking their own freedom to help other slaves.

One of the biggest challenges in the Underground Railroad was communication. It was illegal at the time to teach slaves to read or write, so most were unable to understand written directions. To overcome this, secret codes and symbols were created to give slaves directions and help them know which way to go. There were also secret symbols that told them if a house was a safe house where they could stop for food or rest. Many times these codes and symbols were hidden in quilt patterns because it was very common to hang quilts out on fences or over window sills to air them out.

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