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The Reverse Underground Railroad: Slavery and Kidnapping in Pre-Civil War America

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Wednesday, May 15, 2024 - 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2321
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1838 woodcut of the kidnapping of a free Black woman to be sold into slavery

In the decades before the Civil War a clandestine network of human traffickers and slave traders stole away thousands of free African Americans from the northern states to sell them into slavery in the Deep South. Solomon Northup, the author of Twelve Years a Slave, is now the most recognizable person to be kidnapped and enslaved in this way, but his fate befell countless others.

Philadelphia was the Reverse Underground Railroad’s northern terminus.  The city’s proximity to the Mason-Dixon line, which divided the mostly free North from the expanding slave South, made its many free Black residents attractive targets. Those captured could fetch up to the equivalent of $15,000 in today’s money in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, three of the new territories and states rising along the Gulf Coast.

The settlers swarming into that region demanded a continuous supply of forced labor to cut sugarcane and pick cotton. They would take almost anyone—not only legally traded slaves from places like Virginia and Maryland, but also illegally trafficked free people, many of them children younger than 16.

We know very little about the Reverse Underground Railroad. Its conductors and station agents worked tirelessly to remain untouchable and the identities of all but a handful remain a secret. Only rarely do their names and crimes appear in surviving police files or trial transcripts, their low profile the result of the years they spent in the shadows protected by bribes, avarice, and indifference.

Historian Richard Bell examines the prevalence of this heinous practice, the routes the kidnappers took, and the techniques they used to lure free Black people. He considers the dramatic impact these kidnappings had on American history by accelerating the spread of slavery into new corners of the country, radicalizing Black communities across the free states, and focusing the public’s attention for the first time on the suffering of Black families forcibly separated by slavery. He also discusses the actions of state and city governments to end the kidnappings and the ways in which some children and adult victims were rescued.

Bell is a professor of history at the University of Maryland.

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