tv Virginia the Underground Railroad CSPAN January 3, 2021 3:15pm-3:58pm EST
[cameras clicking] american history tv is on social media. follow us at c-span history. next, on american history tv, karen sherry, curator at the virginia museum of history & culture, tells stories of enslaved virginians and the lengths they took to gain their freedom through the underground railroad. the museum hosted this talk and provided the video. today's topic is virginia stories from the underground railroad. about ourpic that is nations history with slavery, so it feels particularly resonant and relevant today, as we are dealing with the recent protests , and the killing of george floyd in minneapolis.
it is a moment that prompts us all to, i hope, to look at our history, to understand the deep-seated and multifaceted racism that has marked america's history from its earliest days, and we are continuing to fill the legacy and impact of centuries of racism and discrimination against people of color. i also hope this history inspires us to be more thoughtful, reflective, and to be inspired to make positive changes as we move forward as a community, as a nation, and as a society. i'm going to switch to my powerpoint now. we are going to be talking about the underground railroad, which
was an informal system of local networks that worked to help fugitive slaves obtain their freedom. enslaved people had been running ofy since the earliest days slavery in america, from 1619 on. enslaved black people, as evidenced by numerous runway advertisements and reward posters published throughout virginia and the land, enslaved people had a universal desire for freedom, and some of them attempted to gain that by running away, by trying to escape. it is really important to note, however, that being able to successfully run away was incredibly difficult to do.
the vast majority of enslaved people who thought their freedom by running away, did not succeed. so, stories of the undergroud railroad, the success stories, are the rare exceptions, and they are the people who managed to beat the odds. two beat an entire complex infrastructure and systems that was stacked against them. the undergroud railroad was this informal network of people and places, that provided assistance to slaves in their bid for freedom. it started to develop in the 1820's and beyond. why at that moment we start to see the development of these local networks? there are few reasons for that. first, after the revolutionary states gradually
abolished slavery in their states. territories,free where enslaved people had a place to escape to, if they could manage to get one of the northern states. they have the chance of living in freedom. in the 1820's, we see the rise in the abolition movement, made of white and black activists, opposed to slavery. abolitionists, many of whom got involved in helping fugitive slaves obtain their freedom. note also important to that it is very difficult to document the activities of the underground railroad. by its nature, it underground, it had to operate in secret. because it was illegal to, if you are an enslaved people, to
attempt to run away, to seek her freedom. and if you assisted a fugitive slave, that was also illegal. so, to elude the law and to elude punishment, people involved in the undergroud railroad had activities secret. today we know some of the famous stories and actors, such as harriet tubman. but of the thousands of people fugitivein helping slaves escaped, many are unknown to us historians and it is difficult to document their activities. today we are going to focus on virginia's place in the underground railroad and indeed the underground railroad flourished in virginia. there are a few historical reasons for that. first, is geography.
virginia, which, before the civil war, included west virginia was positioned on the border between slave states in the south and free states and the north, that proximity to free territory that made virginia a place where the underground railroad thrived. another reason related to geography, is virginia's many waterways, its vast network of waterways, particularly in the tidewater region that linked virginia to the chesapeake bay and beyond, through its active maritime industry. this map shows many of those rivers, feeding to the chesapeake bay. this is a map that also shows the distribution of virginia's enslaved population. before the civil war, virginia
always had the largest enslaved population of any american colony or state. you can see from this map the population is concentrated in the eastern part of the state, near those rivers that fed to the chesapeake and beyond. as historians talk about virginia's undergroud railroad, they often referred to as a maritime undergroud railroad, because of the active shipping and mercantile industry in virginia from its big ports like norfolk and portsmouth, and along its many rivers, the james, a rappahannock, and so forth. in addition to these waterways providing transportation networks between virginia and the rest of the country and the world, these networks were also worked by a large number of enslavedple, free and
lachman who worked in various maritime industries. dockworkers, ship stewards, and so forth. they often provided assistance to fugitive slaves who were seeking to escape from virginia, the other water. -- via the water. unfortunately, many of their names are unknown. the activities of the undergroud railroad had to remain secret, had to be clandestine. these black of many mariners have been lost to historians. oneive you an example, black sailor who regularly help fugitive slaves is only known to us by the nickname, ham and x. -- ham and eggs. many others who assisted fugitive slaves, their names have been lost to history.
what we do know of the is bestud railroad documented by this man, william still, an extra ordinary figure who lived in philadelphia. 1847, he worked for the pennsylvania antislavery society. from his offices in philadelphia, william still became a major conductor on the undergroud railroad. if they made it to philadelphia. his office could provide them with links to the black community in philadelphia. he could provide them clothing and food and so forth. he often also helped them find passage elsewhere, if they had to continue their trip farther north, or to canada. many extraordinary things about
william still, he kept records of the many individuals who need his office'help. a diary3-18 57, he kept where he recorded information about all these fugitive slaves who came to his office seeking help. and after that the civil war, he published the records in several publications. the record to cap give us some of the best documented stories from the undergroud railroad -- the records that he capped give us some of the best document of stories from the undergroud railroad. tos full of references enslaved virginians who escaped, what to philadelphia, and saw help from william still at his office. here's a typical entry from september 12, 1853. william still records on the state, john walker, who was 25 years old, arrived from clark so, virginia. informationrksville
-- clarksville, virginia. the final line says he arrived in a vessel from richmond. enslaved people arrived at william still's office indeed came through virginia's maritime undergroud railroad. this entry dated august 27, 1853, describing how henry foster arrived from richmond. also note the use of abbreviations for william still and his colleagues. he used abbreviations to protect their identities, in case his fell into the wrong hands. protectstill wanted to the identities of these people from beingthorities prosecuted for helping fugitive slaves. you also seek the last line of this record another abbreviation, common
abbreviation found in william still's diary, how henry foster came through the sec of r. r, refersat the c of to the city of richmond, a steam ship that traveled between virginia ports like portsmouth and norfolk, to ports in northern cities. this vessel was captained by captain fountain. and we believe it was either captain john fountain or abraham fountain. there were two captains by that name in the 1840's and 50's -- 1850's, from philadelphia. captain fountain at his crew regularly helped fugitive slaves in their bid for freedom. william still referred to fountain as one of the most daring and drug captains ever connected with the undergroud railroad.
and it is estimated that city of athmond was transporting, its peak in the 1850's, they be 60 people on average per month, to freedom, in the north. slaves whoe fugitive escaped, via the city of richmond steamship, was curtis davis.is -- clarissa a woman from portsmouth, virginia, she decided to run away. she was seeking passage on board a ship, but it took her a little while to arrange that. so she ended up having to hide out in portsmouth for two and half months. as hid in a chicken coop, she was attempting to find passage. in may, 1854, she succeeded in doing so with the help of the steward of the city of richmond, a free black man named way
impact now. bagnall.heilliam helped her gain passage on a ship leaving for philadelphia. clarissa, in order to get on board the ship without being discovered by authorities, she disguised herself as a man. -- so she used that ingenious technique of dressing in drag to elude authorities and successfully get on board the ship. yet she continued to have to hide out in secret, during the voyage. and again, william bagnall helped her bite secret ting her away behind the furnace. recordsiam still clarissa's account of her experience, where she described how she went on the boat, and was secreted in a small box near the furnace, where it was very
hot, where she suffered and thought she must die, wanted water very much but was unable to get any. that gives you the sense of the physical hardship, the heat, the thirst, the physical discomfort, she had to endure. nevertheless, i am sure she thought it was worthwhile, because ultimately, she arrives safely in philadelphia, where she was reunited with some of her brothers, and was able to live in freedom. of course, the virginia authorities were outraged by the peopleies of enslaved who attempted to run away, and those working in various undergroud railroad networks who assisted them. wise,ia's governor, henry in 1859, he complained our border states are so liberated by this exterior system, by this
silent, stealing system, that they have no need to take up arms for the ration. -- take up arms for liberation. the proslavery newspaper published in norfolk issued an intorial on april 22, 1864, which they estimated slaveholders lost about $75,000 in property in one year. that is the kind of sad reminder of the fact that enslaved people were counted as property. they were legally considered property, during slavery. weremeans that they counted as assets, as part of the slaveholder's wealth. so when they ran away, when they self emancipated, that led to a loss in assets for their slaveholders. that angered virginia authorities and the slaveholders immensely.
the same editorial also complained about the outrageous theft, and the secret agency at work in our midst, can reference to the activities of the undergroud railroad. now, virginia authorities responded to the phenomenon of enslaved people running away, by trying to pass laws. the first lot that appeared on virginia books was during the early colonial period in 1639. a law was passed prohibiting enslaved people from wanted -- running away. they clearly did not work, because virginia's government continually pass laws about that. throughout slavery. also, as the opposition to slavery, as the divide between pro-slavery and anti-slavery
forces deepened, in the decades leading up to the civil war, virginia's general assembly passed laws trying to curtail the activities of abolishionists .inthe undergroud railroad 1836, the general assimilate passed law that precipitate would -- prohibited members of abolishionists societies from visiting virginia . blocke virginia wanted to any influence they might have in propagating abolishionist messages. also the virginia passed a law enabling any ship to be inspected by authorities, in response to the many fugitive slaves who successfully escaped through virginia's maritime networks of the many vessels in
virginia waters. captain fountain and into this 1856. november, authorities heard rumors there were the civil war fugitive --enslaved fugitives on his ship. so the mayor of norfolk took police officers, boarded the city of richmond, and started chopping up parts of the ship, looking to find secret compartments, in which enslaved people were hiding out. fortunately, captain fountain was able to assuage the norfolkies, and left fugitive people successfully hidden on board his ship. as another conductor on the undergroud railroad who regularly appears in william still's diary.
nickname. is the referring to william bayless, a captain from delaware, who regularly travels throughout virginia's waterways, transporting people and cargoes from virginia to northern part. -- ports. was able tohe successfully transport dozens of fugitive slaves to freedom in the north, he did run into trouble. incidentthis represents a breakdown on the undergroud railroad. may of 1858, he was transporting five fugitive slaves hidden on his vessel, he called the kosiah. transporting them from petersburg to the north.
and the authorities had gotten word that he was carrying some fugitive passengers. to try to elude authorities, captain bayless set sell earlier than he should have. the tides were not right for the trip. but he wanted to try to escape that virginian, authorities were legally authorized to make. unfortunately, his ship ran aground and authorities were able to catch up with him, and they found that fugitive people hidden aboard his ship. those people were returned to their slaveholders, they were returned to slavery. captain bayless was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 40 years any virginia -- in the virginia state penitentiary. that gives you an idea of how harsh the punishments were for people who assisted enslaved people running away.
captain bayless ultimately ended up serving only six years. but still, it gives you a sense of how harshly virginia cracked down against anyone who was fighting against the system of slavery. 's most famousia and most ingenious escape story is that of an rebound, -- henry box brown. but hean enslaved man, worked as a hired slave in the tobacco factories in richmond. that work allowed him to squirrel away money, which he purchase in order to the freedom of his wife, nancy, and their children. unfortunately, henry was dealing with an unscrupulous slaveholder, who took his money but did not grant his family freedom.
henry to witness the horrific and tragic scene of watching his wife and children be auctioned off, and one of richmond's slave markets, as part of the interstate or thomistic slave trade. -- interstate or domestic slave trade. a regulararation was and tragic occurrence for slave families. it is estimated one in three slave children were separated from their trip parents -- from their parents, because of that slave trade. and one in five married couples were separated. and that is one of the fates that henry brown had to experience. and in his narrative, he describes how, after his wife is her, he walked alongside as she was being marched out of achmond, and a slave -- in
line of enslaved people, chained, who are sold down south, likely to be worked in a cotton field. henry walked alongside her, holding her hand, for two miles. in his autobiography, he described how it was such a painful experience, he did not even have words to describe it. it is really heartbreaking to imagine. well, that was an event that prompted henry brown to decide he was going to obtain his freedom, no matter what. and he was willing to risk his life, in order to gain his freedom. so he came up with an ingenious idea, of having himself shipped in a crate, to free territory. so, with the help of two of his colleagues, a white man, and a free black man, henry secured a crate, that measured three feet
by two feet by about two and half feet. they packed him inside this crate, they drilled holes in the side of the crate for air, and henry took a bladder of water, and a few crackers. 1849, they shifted this crate to philadelphia. the crate was addressed to the pennsylvania antislavery society in philadelphia, the office where william still worked. but in order to get there, henry first had to endure a 27 hour trip. you can imagine, 27 hours being cramped into that small crate. the crate was transported through several different modes, by ship, by wagon, by train. even though the crate was carefully marked, this site up, -- this side up, the crate got turned over at several points during the journey.
at one point so much pressure built up in henry's head from being positioned upside down in the crate, that he passed out. when the crate arrived in philadelphia, at william still's office, william still and his colleagues gathered around the crate. they knocked on the crate, nervous about what they would find inside. they did not know if the daring gambit by henry brown would be successful, or he died en route. they did not hear anything initially. so they pried off the lid of the crate. and low and behold, miraculously, out popped henry brown. he first greeted the gentleman, and then he burst out in song, and started singing psalms, and gratitude for his safe delivery to philadelphia. really quite a remarkable story, to think of what he endured to get to free territory in philadelphia.
because of henry's experience, he adopted the nickname of brown, so he is known as hammer neri box brown-- he is known as henry box brown. the nature of his expense and publish a narrative of his life, and became a celebrity and abolitionist circles. henry traveled throughout the north giving lectures to abolishionist societies and other anti-slavery supporters. he also traveled to england and canada on the international abolishionist circuit. he used his experience which he described in religious terms, as a kind of resurrection, as he was successfully transported from slavery to freedom. he described that process, as a kind of religious resurrection. and to give you one line from his narrative, he described how
certainly the deliverance of moses from destruction on the nile, was scarcely more marvelous than was the deliverance of mr. henry box brown, from slavery. now, the activities of the undergroud railroad wound down in the civil war. the civil war in 1865 brought an end to 246 years of slavery in the united states. the civil war, when he broke and brought many federal troops to virginia. virginia was one of the primary theaters of warfare. troops, ofe of union federal troops in virginia, led of enslaved people
running away. because enslaved people realized if they could get across union lines, they had a chance of gaining their freedom. so we see during the civil war, a lessening need for the networks of the undergroud railroad, because the sheer number of enslaved people running away from plantations to cross union lines, to gain their freedom. it brings us to the end of the activities of the undergroud railroad. a final note, before we turn to our questions. i think it is important to note that in many ways, the story of the undergroud railroad, even though certain parts of it are mythologized, and many parts that are difficult to accurately document, it is a story that
highlights the universal desire for freedom, among enslaved people. it underscores the often desperate measures they were willing to take, the sacrifices they were willing to make, in order to escape their bondage. of civilo an example disobedience. of black andration white people, infighting a system of slavery. it is a story that, in many ways, is celebratory, -- a celebratory story, about the resistance to slavery that went on prior to the end of slavery. yet, it is the exception, rather than the norm. i think we have to recognize that the vast majority of enslaved people, regardless of were stuck inces,
that system, as i mentioned earlier, it was very, very difficult to run away. really come the odds were really,against them -- the odds were stacked against them. it is important to them ever that aspect. especially today, as we are thinking about the nation's long history of racism and discrimination patterns that are rooted in our long history of slavery and segregation. so with that final comment, i would now like to open up the floor to your comments and questions. i look forward to addressing them. turn off theg to powerpoint presentation so i can see your questions directly. ok. i will read the question. we have a question from a visitor.
instead of saying enslaved people were running away, shouldn't we say they were claiming their freedom? running away inherently and set late reinforces the notion that they were doing something wrong -- inherently reinforces the notion that they were doing something wrong. a pet runs away, not an adult human. i think that is a great point, had it underscores the sensitivity, and the power of language. this is something i, as a historian, have to be very , and historians use various terms and words to describe the act of an enslaved person escaping from their bondage. running away, self emancipating, seeking freedom, and so forth. so i thank you for that it is
an up -- -- i thank you for that comment. it is important reminder of the connotations of the words we use. other questions? while we are waiting for more questions, um. here we go. there was a question about, suggestions for books and other resources, to learn more about the stories. a great resource is william still's records. theublished two books about many, many people whom his office helped. available in the
virginia museum of history and culture library. at the moment i am not sure if there are digital versions of the book online. but probably you can get her hands on that. -- you could get your hands on that. there is also a good book by fergus povich, called the -- ofavich, called the man canaan. a second book on the undergroud railroad, the name is escaping me, but we did have the ability to write written comments to this so i will get those citations in the written comments, so please circle back. another great resource is a u.b.urce compiled alexander, the dean of norfolk state university, a specialist in african-american history. it is an all-night resource
about virginia's undergroud railroad. 's you google virginia undergroud railroad, you should hit upon this really great resource, so i encourage you to check out this resource to learn more information. ok, let's see. another question, how do you think learning about the railroad may have inspired protesters of today? that is a really great question. and i think that one thing that is inspiring, about the undergroud railroad, about the courage,s of the great and sacrifice made by the enslaved people who tried to escape, who fought for freedom in that way. who at riskpeople,
of their own life and safety, help them out along the way. i think what is inspiring is the courage of those people, also the collaboration between enslaved and free people, between white and black people. i think that is an important model for us today. as i mentioned in my talk, if an enslaved person, self emancipating yourself was illegal. if you are a free person, helping an enslaved person was illegal. so the activities of the undergroud railroad represent an early form of civil disobedience against the practice of slavery. while today's protests take different forms, the form of marches and petitions, i think the spirit of resistance to a system of inequality, and of
discrimination, and dehumanization, those motivations are inspiring the protesters today. thank you for that question. more questions are coming. one thing i will note, thinking about the undergroud railroad as a form of resistance, as a form of civil disobedience. as i mentioned in my talk, it was very difficult to escape from slavery if you were an enslaved person. perhaps the was ultimate form of resistance. but there were many others. and many enslaved people people adopted perhaps less radical forms of resistance.
among those forms of resistance included work slowdowns, breaking tools, pretending to be sick, and so forth. so there were various ways in which enslaved people saw to resist the conditions of their it was veryn though difficult to do so. any form of resistance could be that with extreme forms of punishment. all right, if they are not any questions coming in at the moment i will wrap this up. with a final thank you, for your continued support of the museum. an encouragement to stay tuned, by checking out our website, to find other programs and activities and resources. well.final wish to stay
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social media. follow us @c-span history. next on reel america, a , series of films produced to and 1956, 1954 designed to familiarize nato member countries with the culture, history, industry, and military contributions of their nato partners. the nato was founded in 1949, and the films in the atlantic community series were financed by the u.s. government. join us for a 1950's journey to visit five nato countries. first, a look at france, 1954. it begins with a teacher in equatorial africa, asking, what is france? in 20 minutes, we will check on 1955 west germany to see how things have changed since world war ii. in 40 minutes, the united
kingdom we will see queen , elizabeth visiting former british colonies. in about an a look at our hour, neighbors to the north introducing canada, and finally in about 80 minutes, we see 1956 america as we presented ourselves to our nato allies in introducing the united states. ♪ [dramatic newsreel patriotic symphony music] ♪