Origin of the term | What was the Underground Railroad?

Origin of the Term Underground Railroad

The origins of the Underground Railroad go back before the 18th century, but the terminology dates to around 1831. One version states that an enslaved, Tice Davids, crossed the Ohio River in the vicinity of Ripley, Ohio, a ferryboat ride from the slave state of Kentucky, to escape from his owner. As Tice Davids swam the river, his owner kept him in sight as he pursued him in a small rowboat. He could see Tice's head bobbling in the river, but once Tice reached the Ohio side, he was lost from view. His owner searched diligently around Ripley, "a town that hated slavery," but was unable to find his human property. Bewildered and tuckered out, the slave owner could only conclude that Tice Davids "must have gone on an underground road."

It was subsequent to this incident that those conspirators involved in the escape of Tice Davis, and others, began to use such terms as conductors, firemen, brakemen, stationmasters, depots/stations, and such phrases as "catching the next train" to describe their clandestine, though morally driven, efforts in assisting refugees to escape a morally bankrupted slave-owning South. The terminology used was in line with the country's early use of steam to propel passenger-carrying vehicles, in this case the railroads.

Suggested Reading

  • Henrietta Backmaster, Let My People Go. The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement (Harper & Brothers Publishers: New York, 1941: pp. 58-59.
  • John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom. A history of African Americans (McGraw-Hill, Inc.: New York, 7th edition: pp. 183-185).


What was the Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad was part of a larger effort to undo an unconscionable, immoral act perpetrated against humanity in the form of chattel slavery.

The Underground Railroad was a crucial driving force in the abolitionist movement, drawing the country more and more into the abyss of civil war and the eventual collapse of the institution of slavery.

The Underground Railroad can be understood as:

  1. The Flight from Slavery to Freedom
  2. The theft of self in the face of unjust laws.
  3. The collaboration of blacks and whites to rescue the enslaved in defiance of the law.
  4. Humanity joined together against inhumanity.
  5. A challenge to American doctrines of freedom; equality; justice.
  6. The ongoing struggle for total freedom in USA.
  7. A fight against depersonalization and dehumanization.
  8. A moral challenge to an immoral mindset.
  9. An added thread to an unfinished tapestry of human freedom: The quilting of freedom and the American Dream!
  10. An ongoing lesson on the role of African Americans and their friends in the evolution of American Freedom

The Underground Railroad was a response to an American paradox created at the beginning of the country's history, when the founding fathers validated the enslavement of Africans while extending the fruits of freedom to European indentured servants. Those who were denied freedom created an elaborate network of clandestine cells across the northern tier of the country that assisted scores of fugitive slaves to freedom.

The Underground Railroad was a monumental effort in direct defiance of the Constitution of the United States into which slavery had been written, and challenged federal edicts such as the initial Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. Defiance intensified with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Underground Railroad was a moral challenge posed to a morally bankrupted nation, around which rallied morally committed individuals whose own freedom was not worth much so long as others were enslaved.

The Underground Railroad was "not a route, but a network; not an organization, but a conspiracy of thousands of people banded together for the deliberate purpose of depriving their southern neighbors of their property [in defiance of the law]." It was "like a ferment beneath the surface of southern society," and was at the core of the country's moral dilemma.

The Underground Railroad was such a formidable force that "it call forth [that] ignominious fugitive slave law," and eventually "brought on the Civil War" and the destruction of slavery.

The Underground Railroad was a people's movement that changed the body politic of the country for the better for it was the people who pushed the country to align creed with practice: WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT THAT ALL MEN [AND WOMEN] ARE CREATED EQUAL, AND ARE ENDOWED BY THEIR CREATOR WITH CERTAIN INALIENABLE RIGHTS AMONG WHICH ARE LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS!