Slave Railroad to Freedom

Slave Railroad to Freedom

William Lambert, Leader of Detroit's Underground Railroad




William Lambert, Leader of Detroit's Underground Railroad


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At twilight, the three exiles walked up Main Street — silent, weary, silhouetted against the gathering darkness like the ghosts of some long-vanished past. They were fugitives from Virginia, and from slavery. And the most uncanny thing about their escape was this, according to a local newspaper: “They trudged along with their heavy bundles unmolested, and, in fact, almost unnoticed.”

The Underground Railroad Map




The Underground Railroad Map


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The scene would have been unimaginable just months earlier — not to mention its being reported, so openly and matter-of-fact, in the press. Southern Pennsylvania, lying atop the Mason-Dixon Line, had of course long been an avenue of escape for slaves, a way station on the path to ultimate freedom in Canada. But it had been an avenue of pursuit, and sometimes a field of battle, for the slave catchers, too. Fugitives had bounties on their heads that many Pennsylvanians were eager to claim. And local magistrates were sworn, after all, to uphold federal law.

Fugitive Slaves Fleeing from the Maryland Coast to an Underground Railroad Depot in Delaware, 1850




Fugitive Slaves Fleeing from the Maryland Coast to an Underground Railroad Depot in Delaware, 1850


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So the Underground Railroad had always — even in the most antislavery regions of the North — been a clandestine affair, a network operating under cover of darkness, in root cellars and haylofts and in the shadow of abandoned gristmills. Here in the state capital and its surrounding region, a single glimpse or misstep had often led to disaster. Ten years ago this spring, a man, woman and child had been seized in a nearby town, hauled before a Harrisburg magistrate and sent back into bondage, leaving the couple’s 10-month-old infant behind.

Yet now, less than three months into the Civil War, it seemed that the Underground Railroad was emerging — if not into broad daylight, at least into the pale summer dusk. The passage of those three fugitives on Main Street was no solitary occurrence. Back in late May, more than 100 escapees had arrived in Harrisburg over the course of just one Wednesday and Thursday: an astonishing figure, given that only some 800 fugitives were believed to have escaped from the entire South throughout the previous decade.

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