Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad, Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 1998.

This book is produced by the National Park Service at the request of congress.  It is a book which tells the story of the Underground Railroad, and not so much as to where or what building were involved.  Because accurate records were generally not kept on purpose, as they could be incriminating, many of the stories have basis in fact, but also tend to myth. 
This book gives the best history of slavery I have come across.  450,000 Africans were sold into slavery in the United States.  This was due mostly to the need for labor and slaves worked in agriculture, mining and other businesses.  The journey from Africa could be hazardous.  Slaves were generally transported in the hold, with a roof between four and two feet.  They were very crowded, and often feet and heads over lapped.  There was no facility for using the restroom, and so the slaves had to lie in their own filth.  It is said that you could tell a slave ship was coming by the smell, before you could see it.  The mortality rate was always over 10 percent, and sometimes much higher.  It is estimated several million African died being shipped to the Americas (both North and South). 
Slavery was practiced in all the original thirteen colonies.  However all of the Northern States eventually did away with slavery.  By 1860 only 15 states allowed the practice of slavery.  In this year there were almost 4 million slaves in the United States.  There were 488,000 free blacks.  These were from self-purchase, children of freed blacks, and because in the North many owners had freed their slaves as laws with regards to slavery changed.
In the South, it was difficult for a slave family to remain intact.  The statement, “sold down the river” referred to the process of the slave trade, where the more northern Southern states were used for breeding, and then the slaves were sold south to the cotton fields or other needs.
The Underground Railroad was active from when the first slave tried to escape.  For the most part this was a way to refer to those helping escaped slaves.  They used railroad terms, but in no way ran an actual railroad.  Terms used included conductors (those who helped the fleeing slaves), stations (homes where they could layover), routes, cargoes (fleeing slave), packages and passengers.  The word underground refers to the clandestine nature of the help, not to an actual tunnel.  The goal for most fleeing slaves was Canada.  This is because in 1830s the British Empire had outlawed slavery, and British courts had ruled there was no requirement to return slaves.  Other destination might include Europe, Mexico, the West, and the Caribbean.  There are many daring tales of escape.  This include shipping yourself in a box, the wife of a husband and wife pair dressing her as a Southern master and traveling in disguise.  There are also many heroes of the Underground railroad, including Blacks and Whites.  Frederick Douglas was an outgoing spokesman, as well as a station master.  Some cities were known for their efforts in this regard, including Oberlin and Ripley, Ohio, Washington D.C. and other communities. 
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850,  even free Blacks were kidnapped and taken south.  There were groups formed to keep an eye on slave-hunters.
This book is very concise and very informative.  I enjoyed it greatly.

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