The Underground Railroad – Out of Slavery

Each February, Black History Month honours millions of Americans. This year President Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first African-American president gave the month special significance.

International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario

The American Resource Center at the National Library, commemorated the Underground Railroad Movement and Black History Month. Petra Helenius, a student at the Department of North American Studies talked about the clandestine movement.

During the 1800s more than 100,000 enslaved people sought freedom through the Underground Railroad. It was not a real railroad with tracks and trains. The Underground Railroad was used to describe secret routes, which enslaved men, women and children used to gain their freedom. This secret network had several branches and extended all the way from the deep South to the North.

- The journey to freedom could last up to one year, Petra Helenius explained. Mostly young strong men succeeded; women and children were easily caught. Since slave owners were allowed to retrieve their slaves even in free states, many of those fleeing kept moving until they reached Canada or Mexico, where slavery had abolished.

Those who escaped often obtained help and protection from free Blacks, whites, Native Americans, and other slaves. They provided food and shelter along the way.

- Different code languages to help the fugitives were developed; one of the most fascinating being quilt patchwork. A patchwork quilt blanket hanging out from a window could hide a message. Flying geese in the textile indicated a certain direction, a bear’s paw indicated a certain mountain trail. Messages could also be hidden into songs, Helenius continued.

The remembrance originated in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson, as "Negro History Week". Woodson chose the second week of February because it marked the birthdays of two Americans who greatly influenced the lives and social condition of African Americans: former President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.

Text: Karin Hannukainen
Photo: Wikipedia

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