CRF Blog

The Secret History of the Underground Railroad

by Bill Hayes

In The Secret History of the Underground Railroad, the Atlantic reviews Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner.

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad tells a story that will surprise most readers. Among its biggest surprises is that, despite the book’s subtitle, the Underground Railroad often was not hidden at all. Abolitionist groups made little secret of assisting runaways — in fact, they trumpeted it in pamphlets, periodicals, and annual reports. In 1850, the year of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, the New York State Vigilance Committee publicly proclaimed its mission to “receive, with open arms, the panting fugitive.” A former slave in Syracuse, Jermain W. Loguen, announced himself in the local press as the city’s “agent and keeper of the Underground Railroad Depot” and held “donation parties” to raise money, while newspapers published statistics on the number of fugitives he helped.

Underground Railroad bake sales, as improbable as these may sound, became common fund-raisers in Northern towns and cities, and bazaars with the slogan “Buy for the sake of the slave” offered donated luxury goods and handmade knickknacks before the winter holidays. “Indeed,” Foner writes, “abolitionists helped to establish the practice of a Christmas ‘shopping season’ when people exchanged presents bought at commercial venues.” For thousands of women, such events also turned ordinary, “feminine” chores like baking, shopping, and sewing into thrilling acts of moral commitment and political defiance. [more]

For a free related classroom lesson titled “Harriet Tubman and the End of Slavery,” go to our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. The lesson is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.