The Center for AntiSlavery Studies




Overview of the Underground Railroad
Background
The UGGR in Northeastern Pennsylvania

Background

The name given to the slave liberation movement in the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad, is dated by the establishment of the railroad industry in the early 1830’s. The freedom movement, itself, reached back as far in time as the establishment of slavery. Slaves, sometimes assisted in their escapes by sympathizers and sometimes not, would, from time to time, take their condition into their own hands and run away from their “masters.” Even a cursory review of history reveals that the “railroad” evolved in response to a variety of social events and trends influenced by those events as well as religious, political and economic trends throughout the years of slavery’s existence.

In order to create a context for this study, some of the important events and trends acting as catalysts for change will be defined and briefly discussed.

I. 1682-1700 Provincial Period-state of perpetual servitude was conferred upon those blacks who were pressed into laboring without compensation.
II. 1701 Special codes and laws and punishments pertaining only to blacks (not white indentured servants) were created.
III. 1744 Movement entitled the Great Awakening causing a significant nationwide group professing religious rededication to question the morality of slavery.
IV. 1776 Battle for nationhood—the irony of the Revolutionary War was not lost on many slaves who were denied their rights regardless of how the war ended; nor was it lost on many citizens for whom a successful conclusion to the war meant their liberation from a foreign power. The awakened spirit of rebellion against tyranny continued to have its influence on the question of slavery.
V. 1780 Gradual Abolition Act adopted in Pennsylvania.
VI. 1830’s Proliferation of anti-slavery societies.
VII. 1850 Fugitive political agitation resulting in passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and consequences of its passage.

By 1830, slavery was nonexistent in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Generations of colored people whose roots were in slavery extending back to the early 1700’s had formed small communities throughout these ten counties. These African American settlers, who had gained or were gradually gaining free status at the turn of the nineteenth century, were naturally empathetic toward runaways. They were assisting their kinsmen long before white abolitionists began forming anti-slavery societies in the 1830’s, the time frame historians usually mark as the formal beginning of the Underground Railroad movement.

One of the greatest spurs given to the end of slavery, hastening its final days, was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Negroes were hunted down with club, chain, whip, and gun. Paid slave hunters, often reinforced by sadistic local hoodlums, cared little whether their victims were runaway or freed slave. John Doy’s narrative (Holman Press, N.Y., 1869) documents cases where ‘free papers’ were taken from Negroes and burned publicly, while the captives were shipped and sent south without trial.

Scared, trembling men, women, and children were dragged from their homes, bound and marched before U. S. commissioners, who got a ready fee. ‘Identification’ papers were presented that had been brought along in bulk, with pertinent descriptions filled in after the seizure. Colonies of Negroes were raided in the night and ‘confessions’ beaten out of any unlucky enough not to get away. Those who resisted were beaten or shot. Whites who protested were threatened and slugged. In Chester County, Joseph C. Miller was lynched by slave hunters.

Devout, gentle people who had sincerely believed a peaceful settlement on the slavery question was near were horrified when they saw half-disrobed men and women dragged into the public highways and lashed with cat-o’-nine tails until they lost consciousness, their backs bleeding, shredded flesh. All in all, it was a most revolting business, legalized and sanctioned under the protection of federal law.

Pennsylvania was a very important state for Underground Railroad activity for several good reasons: geography; a significant number of free colored communities; and strong anti-slavery sentiments among significant religious groups. Several variables influenced a number of runaways and free blacks to make counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania “the place to call home.” These included suitable work, decent housing, and communities considerably less hostile than ones they had known before.


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