The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad:  Side 1

Enslaved African Americans could not free themselves under American law.  They might be set free by their owners, or might be emancipated by governmental action, neither of which was likely.  Alternatively, enslaved African Americans might seize freedom through revolt or flight.  Being outnumbered by two-to-one even in the slave states, revolt was ultimately suicidal.  Consequently, fleeing slavery, despite its obvious dangers and the probability of recapture, was the best alternative available to those African Americans determined to be free.

After the American Revolution, slavery ended in the northern states but became even more deeply entrenched in the south, thus creating a border within the United States, with slavery legal on one side and illegal on the other.  The goal of slaveholders and slave-catchers was to defend that border.  The goal of fugitive slaves was to reach and cross it and, if need be, the border with Canada or Mexico or the Caribbean as well.

Driven by the hunger for freedom, thousands of enslaved African Americans chose this path—from a trickle in the 1600s to a steady stream of over three thousand per year by the 1850s to a floodtide of hundreds of thousands during the Civil War.  Most escaped without any help and depended entirely on their ingenuity and courage.  Those who received assistance did so from free people of color, sometimes Native Americans and white Americans opposed to slavery who comprised a loosely organized conspiracy of conscience known as the Underground Railroad—with its shadowy hosts of agents, conductors and station-keepers.

Because the 1793 and later 1850 Fugitive Slave Acts criminalized any assistance to fugitive slaves, true “friends of the fugitive” stood not only for freedom but risked their lives and livelihoods for the possibility of multiracial democracy in the United States.  For these reasons, the Underground Railroad stands, even today, as one of the most powerful and sustained multiracial human rights movements in American and world history—and the courage of fugitive slaves stands as a testament to power of the human spirit and the meaning of freedom.


Resistance and the Underground Railroad:  Side 2

Given the geography of American slavery, Kentucky became central to the Underground Railroad as the key border state in the trans-Appalachian west,—and the Ohio River became a veritable “River Jordan” for black freedom seekers.  As slave population and cotton cultivation shifted steadily to the southwest after 1815, escape from Kentucky became more common and escape through Kentucky became the best route available to fugitive slaves from Tennessee and points south.

For the same reasons, Louisville became one of the busiest fugitive slave “stations” and crossing points in the country.  With the largest free black community in Kentucky and with smaller free black settlements in southern Indiana, fugitive slaves could find both refuge from slave-catchers and help in crossing the river.  Although clandestine river crossings were possible at or near the numerous ferries and small settlements along the river, by the 1850s, the most important crossing point in the greater Louisville area was located west of the Portland neighborhood—leading from Louisville across the Ohio River to New Albany, Indiana.  After negotiating a river crossing, fugitive slaves could then follow several routes leading northward with the assistance of free blacks and white friends of the fugitive, many of whom were Quakers.  By the 1850s, local newspapers reported an average of one slave escape per day from Louisville alone.

Of necessity, the Underground Railroad in a slave state was truly underground and few of its white leaders have ever been identified.  Far better documented are the roles played by many leaders of the free black community of Louisville.  Among them, James C. Cunningham, a local black orchestra leader, worked on riverboats and smuggled abolitionist literature into the city by hiding it in his sheet music.  Washington Spradling was remembered as “a shrewd Negro” and the key local leader by former fugitive slaves in the 1890s.  Shelton Morris, after moving to Cincinnati, worked with Levi Coffin in the 1850s and was considered “the most careful operator” in the free black community of Cincinnati and was involved in efforts to help Margaret Garner, the fugitive slave woman who, in 1856, killed her own child rather than see it returned to slavery.

Selected Sources

Bibb, Henry.  Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: The Author, 1849).

Cockrum, Col. William M.  History of the Underground Railroad, As It Was Conducted by the Anti-Slavery League (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969; first published in 1915).

Gibson, William H., Sr.  Historical Sketches of the Progress of the Colored Race in Louisville, Kentucky (Louisville: n. p., 1897).

Hudson, J. Blaine.  “Crossing the Dark Line:  Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Louisville and North Central Kentucky.”  The Filson History Quarterly, 75(2001):  33-84.

Hudson, J. Blaine.  Encyclopedia of the Underground Railroad (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers, 2006).

Hudson, J. Blaine.  Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers, 2002).

Peters, Pamela.  The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Publishers, 2001).

Siebert, Wilbur H.  The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Russell and Russell, 1967; first published 1898).