It’s both a cultural phenomenon and a supreme irony that today, everyone is claiming a connection to the Underground Railroad. You can’t go to a village, town or city in the Northeast that doesn’t purport to have buildings used by abolitionists to shelter runaway slaves, and every bricked-in doorway, coal chute or hidden closet is thought to be a former hiding place for those making the dangerous trip from slavery to freedom. Everyone wants to think that their home, barn or church was a part of this historic event.
Everyone who has traced their ancestors to a specific time and place during this period wants them to have been fierce abolitionists, and brave fighters for human rights, risking their own liberty to help escaped slaves make their way to freedom in the North or Canada. The Underground Railroad has captured the American imagination the way few events have. It’s truly amazing, because it was all quite illegal, the participants were all technically criminals, terrorists even, and they were all breaking the Federal law of the land. And break it they did, repeatedly, and in good conscience.
If every place that laid claim to being a station on the Underground Railroad was correct, the way north would have been a stroll from house to house to the border. It was not. If every person along the way was willing to risk their own life and property to shelter runaways, many more people might have succeeded in escaping, and if those same people had petitioned Congress with the same fervor, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 might have been overturned, or may never have been passed in the first place. We’ll never know.
Here’s what we do know: Before 1850, slaves had been escaping to the North whenever possible. Frederick Douglass had escaped from Maryland in 1838 by donning a sailor’s uniform and getting on a train. He had freedman’s papers in his possession, and 24 hours later was in New York City. But he had advantages that most other enslaved people lacked. He was further north, for one. His master had rented him out to another man, and he was not confined, nor was he a field hand.
Most importantly, he could read and write, and could navigate in cities and social situations. He could read directions, signs and newspapers. If necessary, he could have forged papers, or letters, proving he was free, or at least had permission to be on his own. He also had help on the outside. Anne Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore, who would later become his wife, helped him with money, the sailor’s uniform, papers and connections in the North. It made all the difference in the world.
Douglass may have been one of the most famous escapees, but he was only one of many who escaped slavery before 1850. Up until that point, under the old Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, it was the responsibility of people from the state where the slaves escaped from to try to find them. The masters might go looking for them, or send bounty hunters called slave catchers out, or plaster the walls and newspapers of Northern cities and towns with flyers, descriptions or offers of rewards.
Sometimes it worked, but more often than not, escaped slaves, through the budding Underground Railroad, were able to disappear into Northern cities and remote towns, free, but always looking over their shoulders. Many law enforcement officials in the North were not interested in chasing down Southern runaways, and did little to aid the bounty hunters. Many also refused on moral grounds.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850 between slave states and free, changed everything. Because of plantation slavery, there were millions more blacks in the South than whites, and although they didn’t consider them people in society, the Southern lawmakers counted them as people in their censuses, giving the South much greater representation then they deserved in Congress. The bitter irony here is palpable. They had a majority and could get their way, and Southern lawmakers lobbied hard for the provision to put some teeth into the Fugitive Act.
They were losing money, as slaves were valuable property, and they did not like the non-attention their cause was getting from Northern law officials, or the public. They were able to beef up the law to force Northern police and law enforcement to do their jobs for them. If the law, or any private citizen, knew of an escaped slave, it was their duty to see that they were apprehended and held for return to slavery. It was now a Federal offence to aid any runaways; illegal to offer shelter, food, or any kind of aid. Anyone caught doing so was subject to imprisonment, fines, or loss of property.
Furthermore, and most frightening for the free black population of the entire North, any black person could be forced into slavery. As we saw last time, in the cases of James Hamlet and Margaret Baker, mistaken identity, or lack of proof of freedom could send you back into slavery, and as property, you had no rights at all. There was no inquiry, no double checking, and no trial or court date. You could be dragged off the street and find yourself in a cotton field in a matter of weeks. And if that happened, and no one tried to ransom or rescue you, or if your case was not brought to the attention of the abolitionists and the press, you were lost.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made the organizers and operators of the Underground Railroad take their efforts up a notch or ten. We talk about it quite openly now, and can point out safe houses, and name participants, but at the time, it was cloaked in secrecy. It had to be. While abolitionists and anti-slavery activists, both black and white, carried on their loud and public efforts to legally end slavery, behind closed doors they were organizing secret cells, arranging safe houses, and gathering volunteers for some very dangerous work.
Using the idea of a railroad as their guide, they set up “stations” and “depots,” which were safe houses where the runaways could find shelter, food and rest. These were run by “station masters.” The “conductors” were the people who guided them from station to station. Local people knew each other, but they kept their contacts small and contained, so if caught, no one knew very much and couldn’t betray the entire network.
A lot of people needed to be involved, not just the property owner. There were general helpers and providers of provisions, runners who would go to the next station to tell them that passengers were on the way, and lookouts. A safe house could be a barn, a cellar, the basement of a church, or a secret closet in a private house. You got there by walking, or in a boat or wagon, often hidden in false compartments, or under crops or merchandise. Each station was, in effect, a terrorist cell, or the Resistance, depending on which side you were on. And it worked. It worked really well.
The most famous “conductor” in the Underground Railroad was a tiny woman named Harriet Tubman. After her own harrowing escape north, she personally guided over 70 people to freedom, making thirteen trips down South, and back to the North, slipping onto plantations at night and disappearing with her precious cargo. We have no idea how incredibly dangerous that was, and the risks she took to do it. As her fame spread, Southerners looked in vain to capture her, but they never did. Another African American, William Still, helped as many as 60 runaways a month, sheltering them in his Philadelphia home before sending them further north. He kept meticulous records and took down personal stories, and through his efforts, we have many narratives of slave life and hardships. He is known as the Father of the Underground Railroad.
Here in Brooklyn, we also have a record. Brooklyn’s churches were especially active in the movement. We all know about Plymouth Church, Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn Heights. There were rooms in the basement of his church where runaways were sheltered before they were moved along the railroad. Since Beecher’s church was a hotbed of abolitionist activity, it seems likely that this would be the first place slave catchers, backed by the law, would look, but no one was ever caught here. Perhaps they didn’t stay long enough, or perhaps because everyone assumed that the church wouldn’t be so foolish as to harbor escapees, they were actually able to do so, right under everyone’s nose.
Further into Brooklyn, another hotbed of abolitionist activity was Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene. Its first pastor, Theodore L. Cuyler, was as ardent an abolitionist as Beecher. The church was known as a “temple of abolition,” and tunnels in the cellars point to their role as a station in the Underground Railroad, as well. Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman all spoke here.
Brooklyn’s black churches were extremely active in the Underground Railroad. All of the major denominations located Downtown, and in Weeksville were active as stations, and all were highly successful in raising money and supplying volunteers for the cause. The pastors of Siloam, Bridge Street, Concord, Bethel and others worked tirelessly, as they, and their congregations knew what was at stake. They could not be truly free until everyone was free. Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, as Brooklyn’s first and strongest black church, was a known way station. Today, as the only black church building still standing Downtown , this church, now Wunsch Hall at Polytechnic Institute, is a monument to the role African Americans had in securing their own freedom, and helping others do so as well.
The two “Abolitionist Place” houses on Duffield Street, in the heart of Downtown, now surrounded by high rises, claim to be resting stops on the trail to freedom. There are blocked up tunnels that could lead to Bridge Street AWME Church, only blocks away. No definitive proof has been found, but since the tunnels cannot be excavated, no proof that they are not has been found, either. The location, the age of the buildings all correspond positively to dates and places that could easily have been Underground Railroad stops.
And what about Weeksville? It seems like that town would naturally be a major station in the Underground Railroad, but from the few houses that remain from that period, there is no definitive proof. We do know that Weeksville’s residents were ardent supporters who donated money, time and supplies. No doubt more than one of them harbored fugitives, but since this was such an obvious place for slave catchers to search, they had to be extra careful, and extra deceptive — perhaps so deceptive we’ll never know how they did it. More than likely, fugitives hid in plain sight, and walked right past the bounty hunters.
Countless homes, taverns, barns and churches in Brooklyn harbored the refugees. Perhaps only once, or a few times, so there is no tangible proof remaining today. We do know that Brooklyn was one of the most active cities in the network known as the Underground Railroad. From here, the brave fugitives and their conductors made their way upstate, to Albany and Troy, also hotbeds of Abolitionist activity, and on up to freedom in Canada.
All along the way, they were led, sheltered, fed and cared for by law abiding citizens, black, white and Native American; people who took a stand against a Federal law that they deemed unconstitutional and unconscionable. The Underground Railroad was extremely organized, and rarely lost a passenger, an amazing feat for an operation that had no telephones, computers or cars, and kept no records. There were literally millions of slaves in the South, and the number who were able to escape all the way to Canada has been estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000.
The effect on Southern slavery was not that the plantations were emptying out, but that freedom was in the air, in the fields, the kitchens and the slave quarters. The overseers and slave owners couldn’t beat it out of their slaves or work it out of them. It was too late; there was hope in the hearts of the captives. Each night, a song was sung: “Steal away. Steal away home to Jordan. Steal away.” The next morning, someone else was gone, with a one-way ticket on the Underground Railroad.
(1931 Photo: Bridge Street AWME Church, Downtown Brooklyn. Brooklyn Public Library)
“In Pursuit of Freedom” is an ongoing project; a collaboration between the Brooklyn Historical Society, Weeksville Heritage Center and the Irondale Ensemble Company. The project is the culmination of years of research into Brooklyn’s Abolitionist history. Thousands of new documents, photographs and journals have been found, revealing that we have only touched the surface of what we know about this important period of time, and Brooklyn’s role in it. The first third of the project, covering the years before 1827, when New York State abolished slavery, is the topic of a new interactive website. Here you can read about people and events, and go on a self-guided walking tour in Dumbo, where Brooklyn began. I’m proud to say I had a hand in the project; I wrote the copy for the site. We’ve just scratched the surface, and much more is to come. www.pursuitoffreedom.org.