Black August: The Underground Railroad

By Tracey Onyenacho Aug 25, 2020

The Black August series highlights historical events that remind us of the legacy of Black radical tradition. Black August is a month that holds space for political education and study of Black history, resilience, and resistance. Black August was started by incarcerated people in the 1970s after the death of George Jackson and August was chosen for its significance in many important dates in Black struggle.

Enslaved people were escaping their owners and their plantations way before the Underground Railroad. However, the Underground Railroad became well known as the escape route for Black folks after a Washington newspaper reported in 1839 on an escaped slave who was tortured into giving up his plan to use the route as his path to freedom. 

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad but a set of secret routes that funneled enslaved Black folks to Northern free states and parts of Canada. It is estimated that over 100,000 enslaved people were led to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Sticking with the railroad terminology for the secret network, the guides were referred to as “conductors” and hid runaways in houses and businesses which were called “stations.” 

At the stations, enslaved people were able to eat and rest before moving to the next station along the route. The network also consisted of “stationmasters” who were in charge of taking care of the people hidden in the stations as well as “stockholders” who provided money and goods for their journeys. Money was sometimes used to pay for train or boat rides to transport runaways to the next station. Funds were also used to purchase new clothing in order to change the appearance of those escaping bondage.

Although white abolitionists helped free slaves close to the Northern free states, Underground Railroad “conductor" Harriet Tubman went back to the South amongst slave patrols and helped free enslaved Black people. Tubman returned to Southern slave states 19 times and led more than 300 enslaved Black people to freedom. 

Perhaps due to the success of the Underground Railroad, there was increased tension between the North and the South. Congress added to the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring people in free states to participate in the capture of runaways, which upset white abolitionists in the North who resisted handing over formerly enslaved people. The tension between the two regions led to the U.S. Civil War from 1861-1865.