The Underground Railroad Facts for Kids

  • The Underground Railroad was a group of people (both black and white) who helped enslaved people escape from the South.
  • They did this by offering shelter and help to them. 
  • The exact date that they started is not known, but they probably started it in the late 1800s. 
  • They continued their efforts until the Civil War was over and slavery ended.

During the time of slavery, enslaved people in America needed to escape to the north. There were a number of routes, places, and people that helped them do this. 

They called this network the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t an actual railroad but it served the same purpose: it helped enslaved people get long distances away from their owners.

Abolitionists

The Quakers were the first group to help escaped slaves. Quakers were a religious group in the US that believed in pacifism. George Washington said that Quakers had attempted to liberate one of his enslaved workers. 

In 1800, Quaker abolitionist Isaac T. Hopper set up a network in Philadelphia that helped slaves on the run. 

At the same time, Quaker abolitionists established groups that laid the ground for routes and shelters for escaped slaves in North Carolina.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1816. They also helped fugitive enslaved people.

How did the Underground Railroad work

The earliest mention of the Underground Railroad happened in 1831 when a slave named Tice Davids ran away from his owner and into Ohio. The owner said that an “underground railroad” helped Davids to freedom.

In 1839, a newspaper in Washington reported that someone named Jim who was enslaved had revealed to people under torture that he planned to go north following the “underground railroad” to Boston.

The Underground Railroad did not go through tunnels. It went through people’s houses, barns, churches, and businesses. 

People who worked with the Underground Railroad cared about justice and wanted to end slavery. They risked their lives to help enslaved people escape from bondage, so they could remain safe on the route.

Some people say that the Underground Railroad helped to guide 100.000 enslaved people to freedom. And more than that, this network grew. They started calling it the “Underground Railroad.”

The parts of the Underground Railroad

There was a secret code that had to do with the train metaphor:

  • Conductors: People called “conductors” helped runaway slaves by guiding them to freedom.
  • Stations: The places that sheltered the runaway slaves were called “stations.”
  • Station masters: People who hid slaves were called “station masters.”
  • Passengers: A person who is traveling along the routes was called a “passenger.”
  • Cargo: Those who had arrived at the safe houses were called “cargo.”

Vigilance committees were groups that were created to protect escaped slaves from bounty hunters. They soon started helping other enslaved people to escape by guiding them on the Underground Railroad.

People who ran the Underground Railroad usually did it by themselves. They were not part of a group. There were many people from different jobs and ways of life, including formerly enslaved people. 

Some conductors would pretend they were enslaved and sneak them out of plantations when no one was looking. 

They were at risk of getting caught because they were doing this activity at night, and there was a lot of distance between safe houses, where the runaways could go to escape from slave catchers.

Fugitive Slave Acts

The Fugitive Slave Acts were a pair of federal laws that let you capture and return runaway enslaved people. They were passed in 1793. 

The first Fugitive Slave Act made it so you could take them back to their owners and gave penalties for helping them escape. 

There was also the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which added more provisions about runaways and had harsher punishments for interfering with capturing them.

The Fugitive Slave Acts made it legal for a free black person to be captured and enslaved. 

One famous case was Solomon Northup, a free black musician who was kidnapped in DC. He would spend 12 years enslaved before he won back his freedom in 1853.

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it so that all citizens had to help capture slaves. The effect was that more people joined the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape. 

Most enslaved people were helped by the Underground Railroad, but only those in border states such as Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland. In the deep south, it was hard to escape because of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Helping the Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad bake sales were used to raise money in towns and cities. They sold food, handmade knickknacks, and goods donated by people.

A lot of people want to buy presents for their family and friends at Christmas time. This tradition might not have started without the help of abolitionists. The way they helped was by setting up places where people could trade gifts. 

Even politicians, who were supposed to do their job, did not do it. Some people like William Seward told people to run away and he helped them. Judge Jay said he would not follow the law when it came to slaves.

For women who had to do other things like cooking, shopping, and sewing, it was a good thing that they were doing because it made them feel like they were making a big difference in the world with these small acts.

Graceanna Lewis

Graceanna Lewis was one of the first three women to be admitted into the Academy of Natural Sciences. Graceanna was not only one of the first professionally acknowledged female naturalists, but she also worked for abolition and social reform.

An early publication of Graceanna Lewis asked other Quakers to join and help with her work. The Lewis farm in Pennsylvania became a popular stop on the Underground Railroad to help people find freedom. They also provided clothes and supplies for those fleeing slavery.



Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was a woman who escaped from slavery and helped enslaved people escape as well. She was also a nurse, a spy for the Union, and she supported women’s suffrage. Harriet Tubman is famous in American history because she did so many great things.

Harriet Tubman was born in Maryland. Her name was Araminta Ross when she was a baby. But she changed her name to Harriet after her mom died. 

She moved around a lot with the family, but more and more people were taken away from their families and put in different places by slave owners to keep them from escaping or running away. 

When Harriet was five years old, she had to work as a nursemaid for some white people where they would sometimes whip her if they were mad at something that happened there or if she didn’t do what they wanted.

When Harriet was 12 years old, she saw a person about to be hit by a heavy weight. She stepped in between and got hit instead.

She said about that accident, “The weight broke my skull … They carried me to the house all bleeding and fainting. I had no bed, no place to lie down on at all, and they laid me on the seat of the loom, and I stayed there all day and the next.”

Harriet married John Tubman, a free black man. But the marriage was not good, and Harriet’s brothers Ben and Henry were going to be sold. This made Harriet want to run away.

In 1849, Harriet Tubman came to Philadelphia and then went back to Maryland where she saved her family. Slowly she saved other relatives, one group, at a time. Eventually, she helped dozens of other people escape from slavery by traveling at night and in extreme secrecy. Her friends called her “Moses” because she never lost a passenger.

After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, Harriet Tubman helped to guide fugitives farther north into British North America (Canada). She also helped enslaved people get jobs. 

Harriet made 19 trips back to Maryland to get 300 slaves. Slaveowners offered a $40,000 reward for her capture. In 1857 she was able to rescue her parents. They moved to Canada and then to New York.

The Civil War started. Tubman worked for the Union Army. First, she was a cook and nurse, then she became an armed scout and spy. She led the raid at Combahee Ferry and freed more than 700 people who were enslaved. 

Ellen Craft

Some slaves used disguises. 

William Craft and Ellen Craft escaped slavery. They were born in Macon, Georgia, but they ran away to Philadelphia on Christmas Day. They pretended to be a white man and his servant so that people would not know they were slaves. 

Neither William nor Ellen could read or write because they were enslaved. When they needed to sign something, Ellen would put her arm in a sling. And she covered her face with bandages to hide that she was a woman.

There were other disguises, too: some slaves dressed up like funeral groups. Some pretended to have problems with their eyesight or hearing so they could not easily be identified as being enslaved.

Special codes

The slaves used codes to tell each other when they were safe. The people in charge of the station would send someone down to a different house when someone was coming so that they would know. When the slaves arrived, some of them threw rocks at the window to let the person know.

Canada

Canada was a good place to escape from being a slave. Canada gave black people the freedom to live wherever they wanted. They could sit on juries and run for public office. 

Some people from the Underground Railroad lived in Canada and helped to arrive fugitives settle in.

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