On the Border of Slavery and Freedom: What Conductors and Passengers on the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania Were Up Against

David Waldstreicher, Temple University

Illustration_page50 copy.jpg

Escape from slavery was a dangerous and sometimes deadly prospect. William Still included an illustration of this group's violent recapture in his book, The Underground Rail Road. According to Still, only one of the four fugitives broke free from the pursuers. 

A train goes in only one direction at a time: history does not. The Underground Railroad, like the social movement that created it, responded to both the persistence and growth of slavery in some parts of the United States, and to emancipation in other parts, including Pennsylvania. The railroad had to be underground in Pennsylvania as well as points south, because of the political dominance of masters and their allies in the early United States.  

Some Pennsylvanians were among the first to seriously grapple with the growth of African slavery in the colonies. The environmental, political, and geographical factors that allowed Philadelphia and its hinterland to thrive in agriculture and trade brought slaves, along with other goods in the coastal trade, to the city. As Pennsylvania became a breadbasket of the mainland South and Caribbean by the 1730s, slavery gained more practitioners. The number of slaves in Pennsylvania peaked in about 1780, with over 6,800 slaves in the state. In Philadelphia, too, though the percentage of slaves in the population declined in the late colonial period, to about 8 percent of the total population, the total number of slaves did not lessen. 

At the same time, slavery also gained more critics, especially among Quakers, some of whom condemned it as immoral. In 1754, Philadelphia Quakers took a stance against slavery by publishing John Woolman’s essay, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negros, and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting authored an epistle that condemned the institution of slavery. When Quaker reformers such as Woolman called attention to slavery as a real sin, they first did so in the context of a larger campaign against worldliness, the corruptions of the marketplace and empire, in an age of wars fought for trade and empire. The American Revolution—neither the first nor the last of those wars—and its wartime disruptions of trade, lessened the numbers of slaves in Pennsylvania. These developments enabled legislators to pass, in 1780, the first of the gradual emancipation statutes that ended slavery in the American North, usually by freeing slaves born after a certain date. Pennsylvania’s act freed those born after March 1, 1780, upon their twenty-eighth birthday. (Slavery was finally extinguished in Pennsylvania in 1847.)

Yet the image of the Keystone State as an abolitionist stronghold deeply underestimates the persistence and growth of slavery in the nation. After 1780, Pennsylvania became the easternmost border of slavery and freedom, a magnet for both Africans seeking freedom and masters and their allies seeking to secure their property. Masters sold enslaved blacks south before their legal freedom dates. The kidnapping of free blacks, to sell them or to pass them off in place of fugitives, constituted a kind of reverse Underground Railroad—and one increasingly prevalent and aggressive during the decades between 1820 and 1850. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society responded by helping slaves and kidnap victims in court, while free African Americans continued the informal practice of helping people hide, move, and change their identities regardless of the law. Pennsylvanians and other northern states passed personal liberty laws—laws that attempted to prevent people from being seized for out-of-state crimes such as running away. Soon, legal battles over just what slave catchers and abolitionists could and could not do in Pennsylvania and other border states went all the way to the Supreme Court. One Pennsylvania case, Prigg v. Pennsylvania, set an especially important precedent in 1842 by making it clear that the federal government, and not the state, would ultimately set the rules on the recovery of fugitive slaves. Did the case prove, as the congressman and former president John Quincy Adams wrote, “the omnipotence of slavery”? Could antislavery activists develop a response more effective than the state personal liberty laws that Prigg limited?

Philadelphia and its hinterland continued to serve the slave states economically. The physical and economic proximity to Delaware, Maryland, and the southern waters generally, as much as the unresolved problems of jurisdiction in the federal republic, made Philadelphia a hub of both proslavery and antislavery activity. Black Philadelphia, with its impressive array of churches and associations for mutual improvement, probably had the highest proportion of former southern slaves—i.e., fugitives—of any northern city. Historian Julie Winch estimates several thousand out of the twelve thousand free African Americans residing there in 1820 were fugitives. These people knew intimately, on the level of everyday experience, that their fates in the new republic were tied to those of their “brethren,” as they so often called them, who remained enslaved across the Mason-Dixon Line. And, indeed, the trends in the 1820s and 1830s revealed a disturbing rise in racism, evident in race riots as well as discriminatory practices and even legislation, such as the new state constitution that forbade blacks the vote in 1838.

William Still and his colleagues responded to these developments boldly and effectively. Their strategies, like those of abolitionism generally, were developed over several decades. Early antislavery activists such as the white members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society laid the groundwork by aiding fugitives and lobbying for more favorable laws. The generation of African Americans that came of age during and after the War of 1812 insisted on their American identity as well as their pride in Africanness and their solidarity with the slaves: when they refused to support the plans of the American Colonization Society to encourage freed people to go to African colonies such as Liberia, they signaled a rising political consciousness and insistence on self-determination. Many of these men and women would find themselves in physical danger in confrontations such as the one over Pennsylvania Hall in 1838, when an antiabolitionist mob destroyed a new building dedicated to the antislavery struggle.

In response to this situation, in 1837 Robert Purvis, the first black member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, organized the clandestine Vigilant Committee “to aid colored persons in distress.” By the time of the revived Vigilance Committee of 1852, in the wake of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, William Still and his fellow activists actually “reveled,” as historian Elizabeth Varon notes, in their claims that fugitive slaves streamed illegally into Philadelphia. Still and the fugitives of the 1840s and 1850s deliberately theatricalized the fugitive phenomenon, making political meaning out of a phenomenon that practically speaking could free only an infinitesimally small number of slaves. The incredibly dramatic escape of Henry “Box” Brown as real railroad cargo, related in a life-and-times-and-escape narrative (and later in a traveling show in England) by the refugee Brown, epitomized the practical and political alliance of Still’s Philadelphia activists and whatever audiences—as well as bondsmen—they could reach, or who could reach them. Already in 1845 Frederick Douglass, aided by Still’s earlier New York counterpart David Ruggles, had complained that all the publicity was putting the actual victims in danger of recapture.

But there was more at stake. Still was engaging in politics as well as espionage and philanthropy. By the 1850s he and his abolitionist allies had learned to balance secrecy and publicity. They turned both contemporary media and “underground” word-of-mouth activities into weapons against two key arguments that supported the slaveholders in mid-nineteenth-century America.

One of these arguments concerned private property rights in slaves. Masters stressed this aspect of slavery not only to protect their investments but also so that people would think of slavery as a “domestic,” or household, and thus benign, institution, like the rights of parents over children. Fugitives and the publicizing of their claims to freedom made a local and domestic issue into an interstate, and thus constitutional, matter.

Secondly, in its very cleverness (think Henry Box Brown coming out of a box and singing a Christian hymn of his deliverance, then writing and publishing a song about his escape to the tune of a demeaning but popular blackface minstrel song), the conduct of the Underground Railroad also directly opposed racist and proslavery publicity that slaveholders and their northern allies had been bringing into legislatures and the media for some time. The Underground Railroad was a means of getting fugitives out of the hands of slave catchers, but it was also an argument that blacks wanted freedom and could help themselves.

Had slavery not grown and diversified in the South during the antebellum period, and had masters not taken the offensive against the actual successes of abolition in the North, the fugitive slaves would not have become the crucial figures of the antislavery struggle, and Philadelphia would not have become a hub of the great antebellum controversy. William Still’s journal and other writings get us inside the conductor’s booth, showing us that good activism, like any politics, is about helping real individuals but also simultaneously about touching hearts and maybe, just maybe, changing minds. By going underground while remaining, savvily, very much in public view, William Still and friends really did throw a switch, and change the tracks of history.

Further Reading

Ernest, John, ed. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Nash, Gary B. and Jean R. Soderlund. Freedom by Degrees: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in Pennsylvania. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Newman, Richard and James Mueller, eds. Antislavery and Abolitionism in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the Long Struggle for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

Slaughter, Thomas P. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.