People of the Underground Railroad: A Biographical Dictionary

People of the Underground Railroad: A Biographical Dictionary

People of the Underground Railroad: A Biographical Dictionary

People of the Underground Railroad: A Biographical Dictionary


The Underground Railroad was perhaps the best example in U.S. history of blacks and whites working together for the common good. People of the Underground Railroad is the largest in-depth collection of profiles of those individuals involved in the spiriting of black slaves to freedom in the northern states and Canada beginning around 1800 and lasting to the early Civil War years. One hundred entries introduce people who had a significant role in the rescuing, harboring, or conducting of the fugitives--from abolitionists, evangelical ministers, Quakers, philanthropists, lawyers, judges, physicians, journalists, educators, to novelists, feminists, and barbers--as well as notable runaways. The selections are geographically representational of the broad railroad network.


This biographical dictionary provides a representative geographic sample of 100 key people involved in the Underground Railroad. It narrates the stories of their lives and their contributions. Its goal is to provide a broad picture of the secret and sometimes not-so-secret network.

Entries were prepared using both contemporary and original sources, and the two were often compared to ensure accuracy. Most people included were major figures in the Underground Railroad, but a number of minor characters have been included to add scope and bring attention to some whose names have been neglected in the history books. In recent years attention has been focused on including equitable representation by race and gender, and this was taken into account. The breakdown by race is 61 white and 39 black individuals. It is true that blacks were more likely to assist fugitive slaves; however, in 1860 there were about seventy times as many whites as there were free blacks in the United States. Ten women are included, and the small number is a reflection of the primarily domestic role of women in the antebellum period. However, some women—such as Catharine Coffin and Jean Rankin, the wives of the prominent conductors, Levi Coffin and John Rankin—were very much a part of the Underground Railroad operations, in preparing meals and providing accommodations. On at least one occasion, Catharine Coffin even forwarded a fugitive slave to another location in the city of Cincinnati. The husbands of two of the women included, Lucretia Mott and Hannah Cox, were equal collaborators in their Underground Railroad activities.

Available information was also a factor in making the selections. Research in Underground Railroad history has increased exponentially since the National Park Service directive of 1995 called for greater attention to be paid to the history of the Underground Railroad. Important figures as yet little-known may come to light. This biographical dictionary has tapped into the latest information available within the limits of time and space. Especially provocative efforts were made south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Details of the escapes of a representative number of fugitive slaves, and the efforts of the more well-known slave rescuers, those who entered the South to aid slaves to freedom, are included among the entries. All of those profiled in the entries shared a common hatred of slavery, and a deep and abiding compassion for those oppressed by it.

This biographical dictionary supports the belief that the most accurate depiction is provided by the people who were present at the creation. The charge of exaggeration and falsehoods attributed to memoirs told years later is overstated. Certainly, some individuals have rearranged events or details for personal gain. However, this has happened . . .

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