Encyclopedia of African American Business History

By Juliet E. K. Walker | Go to book overview
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UNDERGROUND RAILROAD AND BLACK BUSINESS. After 1831, the terminology of the railroad industry, as it developed and expanded in the United States, was used in discussions of the escape of fugitive slaves from the antebellum South to the North and Canada. Stations were the safe houses, barns, cellars, and attics where fugitives on the run were secreted; people who aided the fugitives in their escape were referred to as trainmen or conductors. Most notable was Harriet Tubman, known as the ‘‘Black Moses,’’ who made 19 runs to the South, bringing out more than 300 slaves. Then there is the well-known escape of Henry Box Brown, who had himself boxed up in a crate and shipped off as cargo on an actual railroad train. Indeed, slaves on the run, using the Underground Railroad, were often referred to as baggage.

The number of slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad, however, can only be estimated, with routes running north from Mississippi to Illinois and Canada and from middle southern states through Indiana and Ohio. Wilbur Siebert claims that 40,000 fugitives escaped to Ohio, whereas the records of businessman William Still, president of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, indicate that some 5,000 fugitives were brought into Philadelphia by the Underground Railroad in the five-year period from 1852 to 1857. Yet, for the fugitive to escape successfully, secrecy was imperative. Consequently, the actual numbers as well as more discrete means of escape have often escaped the scrutiny of historians, particularly the use of transportation vehicles owned by black businesspeople.

Invariably, these means of transportation, however, have been viewed as being owned by whites, and most conductors and trainmen assisting fugitives are


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Encyclopedia of African American Business History


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