The Underground Railroad is an underground network that really existed in the 19th century in the United States. But its shape is very different from that shown in Barry Jenkins’ series …
In the novel The Underground Railroad, which Barry Jenkins adapted for the screen, the American author Colson Whitehead imagines an underground railroad which allowed thousands of slaves to escape and gain their freedom.
If this network did exist, it was not made up of trains as we can see in the series. “When I was a kid I grew up in New York and so when I first heard the word “Underground Railroad” I thought it was a real subway.
Later of course my teachers explained to me that it was not in fact a real rail network that traveled like that underground underground, I was obviously sad and disappointed!“can we read in This article released in 2017. So what was it exactly?
A well-oiled underground network
Forget about trains, tunnels and other railroads… even if it is called “underground” (underground), slaves evolved and hid on the surface. This underground network was run by blacks, whites and abolitionist aboriginals whose goal was to help them reach the northern colonies where they could be free, or Canada (where slavery has been abolished since 1833). .
The system was pretty well oiled, as explained This site majoring in American history. Drivers or “train leaders” were designated to lead the slaves to certain strategic places, which they called stations.
They traveled in the forest, by boat if they could, and disguised themselves to escape the slave hunters. The journeys were dangerous and full of pitfalls. Their only guide was the Pole Star, giving them the direction of the North, of freedom.
Some members of this clandestine network gave money, food and loaned their homes and shelters, in order to hide the fugitives. Some even had underground tunnels from which men, women and children could escape.
To communicate, the network used a system of indecipherable secret codes and key words taken from the lexicon of the railway. The fleeing slaves were called “passengers” or “cargoes” for example. To avoid leaving written traces behind, all communication was done orally.
Heroes of the Underground Railroad
Some of these “drivers” are famous. William Still is considered the “Founding Father” of the network in the 1830s. He will write down in a book (The Underground Railroad Records) the names of all those who passed through his “station” in Philadelphia.
We must also cite another of its leading figures, Harriet Tubman: this former slave would have allowed in the 1850s the release of hundreds of them. She did not hesitate to infiltrate plantations to free her fellow human beings and spread the message. A biopic released last year and worn by Cynthia Erivo paid tribute to her.
Obviously, this underground network was more or less known to slave owners, even if some did not really believe in it (as shown in the series). Concerning the number of people freed thanks to the Underground Railroad, the figures vary according to the sources.
Between 30,000 and 60,000 are said to have escaped. It was not until 1865, the abolition of slavery, that the Underground Railroad ceased its activities.