Five years ago I wrote a story about the Network to Freedom, the runaway slaves and the abolitionists who risked life and property along the Underground Railroad. Recently, I watched the film 12 Years a Slave. The film is based on the 1853 memoir, available on Amazon, Twelve Years a Slave, of Solomon Northrup, a free black man abducted and sold into slavery. This is the story of one man’s quest for equality and dignity. There are many such stories, and they haven’t ended with antebellum America. Yet today, humans suffer in bondage. Never is it untimely to recount the human quest for equality and dignity. I published my story under my byline in Middletown Life Magazine, Middletown, Del., in December 2008. Here is the link to that story: The Quest for Human Equality and Dignity.
Underground Railroad Terminology, Workers and Statistics
Pilots ventured south to encourage slaves to run away and gave directions along the way. “Stockholders” donated money. Agents directed fugitives between stations. When the “cargo” reached a “station” or “depot,” the stationmaster gave not only shelter, but food, clothing and care for broken bones, cuts, and sometimes bullet wounds. The conductor’s job was the most dangerous of all, overseeing a fugitive’s safe journey from station to station to final destination. That final destination was most often Canada, out of reach of the long arm of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act ruling runaway slaves stolen property and therefore liable to be returned from the North to their masters in the South.
The enactment of this law coincided in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin making cotton and the slaves more valuable. By 1840, cotton was the most valuable commodity in America, and rewards for captured slaves were high. Moreover, Northerners benefited from slavery by finishing raw goods from the South and returning them to the South. This economic climate notwithstanding, from about 1810 to 1860, the agrarian economy in lower Delaware shifted from labor-intensive cotton and tobacco crops to the capital-intensive crops of grains and fruit such as peaches, making owning slaves a liability; so, slave ownership dropped from about 95 percent to around 24 percent.
Workers along the Underground Railroad came from all walks of life – shopkeepers; farmers; Quaker Indiana businessman Levi Coffin, often called the president of the Underground Railroad, and with his brother and sister-in-law, said to have started the Underground Railroad in North Carolina; millionaire Gerrit Smith, who twice ran for United States president; and former runaway slaves like Harriet Tubman, who returned at least eight times to her native Maryland to free others. Only about five percent of fugitives made it to freedom in the North, according to the video documentary Whispers of Angels.