The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

Transcript below

According to The Underground Railroad Freedom Center, “People involved with the Underground Railroad developed their own terminology to describe participants, safe places and other codes that needed to be kept secret. People who guided slaves from place to place were called ‘conductors.’ Locations where slaves could safely find protection, food or a place to sleep were called ‘safe houses’ or ‘stations.’ Those who hid fugitive slaves in their homes, barns or churches were called ‘station masters.’ Slaves who were in the safekeeping of a conductor or station master were ‘cargo.’ Code words were also used to enable fugitive slaves to find their way North. The Big Dipper, whose handle pointed towards the North Star, was referred to as the ‘drinking gourd.’ The Ohio River was frequently referred to by a biblical reference, the River Jordan. Canada, one of the final safe havens for many fugitive slaves, was called the ‘Promised Land’ (Although Canada was the destination that many runaway enslaved individuals strived to reach, it was not the only destination for those escaping. Many enslaved people escaped to cities in the North or went to Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, South America or even to remote areas of the South and West). These terms allowed people to communicate about the Underground Railroad without being obvious about their true intentions.”

The Underground Railroad map shows many of the paths taken by self-liberated individuals and the conductors of the Underground Railroad. Visitors may ask why the map does not show paths from Deep Southern states such as Louisiana or Mississippi. While that is unclear, it should be noted that much of the action took place from states in the Upper South such as Virginia, as geographic location made it much more feasible for one to make it to the northern United States and then into Canada. A map showing routes and methods used to travel into Mexico and the Caribbean would be fascinating to see. 


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Installation Image by Roy Rochlin. Latimer/Edison Gallery, Schomburg Center