The Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, by Eastman Johnson, c. 1862 (The Brooklyn Museum)
The historical network of secret routes to freedom known as the Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. Why, then, is this the name we have long used to describe it? Historian Richard Bell examines its mysterious origins and explains why it caught on so quickly. Taking us inside the process of conducting an historical investigation, Bell pinpoints the years around 1840 when this figure of speech emerged. It quickly and decisively replaced previous expressions activists in this community of conscience had used to describe themselves, such as forming a “chain of friends” or a “line of posts.”
Branding, of course, has always mattered and Bell explains how the image of a clandestine railway running beneath 19th-century America did valuable political work in the antebellum era. The term evoked concepts like speed, safety, invisibility, permanence, reach, scale, coordination, progress, and modernity. It helped to build public support for the antislavery cause and succeeded in pushing the cause of Black freedom to the center of national debate by the eve of the Civil War.
Bell is professor of history at the University of Maryland.
Recommended Program: If you are interested in this program, we recommend you consider registering for Voices of Freedom: Poets of the Abolitionist Movement on Thursday, July 21. Note: Voices of Freedom is presented online using Zoom.
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