Resistance

The Underground Railroad

Silk lace and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria. Gift of Charles L. Blockson

The Underground Railroad is one of the most well-known aspects of the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. Although white abolitionists, including Quakers, were an essential part of the runaway system, their roles have been overemphasized in history. Before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was primarily run, maintained, and funded by African Americans. Wealthier and educated blacks, such as Philadelphians Robert Purvis and William Whipper, offered leadership and legal assistance. Black working class men and women collected money, food, clothing, and provided shelter.

Although the Underground Railroad’s effectiveness varied by time and place, there were a large number of successful networks along the east coast. Pennsylvania and New York were the most organized networks, often centered in local churches. By one estimate, nearly 9,000 fugitive slaves passed through Philadelphia between 1830 and 1860. William Still, also based in Philadelphia, helped to finance Harriet Tubman’s group escapes. In Washington, DC, one of the most organized Underground Railroad stations was located close to the U.S. Capitol. It was run by free blacks from Washington, DC and Baltimore who rescued slaves from plantations in Maryland and Virginia.  

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