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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Slavery was the reason the Underground Railroad existed. Despite having the smallest number of slaves of any state in the South prior to the Civil War, Delaware’s legal, social, and economic foundations stood firmly in support of the institution of slavery and aligned it with its neighboring slaveholding states. Its close proximity, however, to Free states also made it an important corridor for Virginia and Maryland freedom seekers striking for liberty further north.

The Underground Railroad was an evolving system and network of real people, places, and methods – including modes of transportation, means of disguise and deception, and other schemes of thwarting barriers to the pursuit of freedom - which facilitated and often encouraged attempts by enslaved people to escape bondage. The Underground Railroad was not a building, place or a person, although buildings, places and people were part of it. The Underground Railroad was also movement rooted in the evolving political, religious, moral, and personal ideologies of freedom and equality nourished by Enlightenment thought, the American

Revolution and the desire of people to be free and in control of their own lives. This movement expanded politically and geographically over time, from isolated independent action, to organized and well-orchestrated collective efforts across great distances throughout the United States, its territories, and beyond to the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and the larger Atlantic World. The Underground Railroad was a part of a larger Anti-Slavery and Abolition movement that had been slowly expanding throughout the late 18th century to the mid-19th century and, ultimately, it played a role in facilitating the end of American Slavery.

The Underground Railroad was a real set of paths to freedom. Individuals and groups of people tended these paths from a variety of ethnic, cultural, religious, and social backgrounds, and they were devoted to helping enslaved people find their way to freedom. They believed that slavery was wrong and that all people deserved to be free. The name “Underground Railroad” first appeared in the early 1820s during the development of the railroad industry and the invention of rail cars. These secret routes to freedom had been working to help slaves run away for many years before then and arguably since the first enslaved Africans landed on the shores of America. People who participated in this illegal and secret business called themselves agents, conductors, engineers, and stationmasters, names of positions on actual railroads. Enslaved people who were fleeing slavery are sometimes referred to as runaway slaves, freedom seekers and self-liberators. During the height of Underground Railroad operations in the mid 1800’s, runaway slaves were sometimes referred to as passengers,  cargo, goods, and freight.

Its operations were illegal so secrecy and confidentiality were critical. The risks were enormous, particularly for self-liberators and African American Underground Railroad supporters in the slave states. Some enslaved people also acted as agents, conductors, engineers, and stationmasters, too, often at remarkable risk to themselves. Total trust and secrecy was necessary for smooth operations of the network. The threat of arrest, physical punishment, sale into slavery, or death was ever present.