Steal away, steal away,
steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here
— Negro spiritual
ome of those daring and artful runaway slaves who
S Railroad (UGRR) no doubt sang the words of old entered New Jersey by way of the Underground
Negro spirituals like "Steal Away" before embarking
on their perilous journey north. The lyrics of these
precious black folk songs indeed often had double meanings, serving as code songs that conveyed plans to escape the yoke of bondage. The phrase "steal away" thus meant absconding; "Jesus" and "home" symbolized the yearned for freedom in the North; and the words "I ain’t got long to stay here" meant that flight northward was imminent.
Running away as a form of protest by slaves against their bondage is as old as African enslavement itself on American soil. The first European settlement on land that would ultimately become part of the United States of America, a Spanish colony established in 1526 in the area of present-day South Carolina, witnessed the flight of its slaves; it is said they fled to neighboring Indians. The presence of African slaves in the British colonies of North America, whose history begins in 1607 with the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, was also marked by flight as an expression of resistance. The 1772 runaway slave notice shown on the right, for example, is evidence of slave dissent in colonial New Jersey.
Down to the outbreak of the Civil War, New Jersey continued to bear witness to the presence of runaway slaves. However, with the passage in 1804 in New Jersey of An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, these fugitives come increasingly from the South; this legislation indeed made New Jersey part of the "Promised Land," those northern states to which bondspersons escaped to quench their thirst for freedom. And from the early 1830s on, these escapees
were connected to the Underground Railroad, that secret network of persons and places—sometimes well organized and other times loosely structured—that helped southern runaway slaves reach safety in the northern states and Canada.
The Underground Railroad is an immensely popular subject, a fact attributable perhaps to the dramatic and exciting nature of its operation, as well as to its having served as the nation’s first example of biracial cooperation in the cause of social justice. Coinciding with the UGRR’s popularity has been the perpetuation of many myths, legends, and misconceptions surrounding it. Tales about tunnels, trapdoors, and secret compartments connected to the UGRR abound, perhaps exceeded only by the number of UGRR sites and communities for which an association with the Underground Railroad is claimed, often without credible evidence. UGRR operatives usually acted clandestinely because of the illegality of assisting
fugitive slaves, a circumstance that has further served to make documenting the Underground Railroad—separating fact from fiction—difficult.
While the origin of the term "Underground Railroad" remains obscure and rooted in several apocryphal tales, the term can be dated to roughly 1830, after the appearance of the first trains in the United States. It was the rise of radical abolitionism in the 1830s, however, that helped to create a nurturing climate for the UGRR. This new approach to the antislavery cause found expression in such forms as the publishing in 1831 of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and the founding two years later of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with its aversion to "moral suasion" and its call for immediate emancipation without compensation to slaveholders.
The scale of the Underground Railroad has often been exaggerated, with some estimates exceeding 100,000 participants. More recent scholarship seems to suggest that between 30,000 and 40,000 runaways—50,000 at the very most—were involved. Although running away was a very common form of slave protest, the overwhelming majority of southern slaves who absconded during the antebellum period remained in the South, many gravitating to the region’s urban centers, where they often sought to pass themselves off as free blacks. The advent of the Civil War reinforced this tendency to remain in the South, with runaway slaves flocking in droves to the invading Union forces that came near them and becoming known thusly as "contraband."
The significance of the Underground Railroad, of course, lies foremost in its serving as an expression of slave resistance. Slaveholders and their sympathizers, in attempting to make slavery morally defensible, asserted that slaves were simple, child-like creatures who were very much contented with their bondage. Each fugitive who headed north therefore personally refuted the claim that bondspersons had no desire for freedom.
Underground Railroad runaways also helped exacerbate the sectional strife over the issue of slavery, thereby facilitating the very event—the Civil War—that would lead to slavery’s end. Indeed, slave flight to the North prompted the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which, as a concession to the slave states, empowered federal agents to apprehend and return runaways who had fled to the free states. Public opinion in many parts of the North, however, increasingly turned against this legislation, some of its provisions (for example, the power of federal marshals to deputize individuals to assist in capturing runaways) being perceived as grave violations of civil liberties. Some free states therefore enacted personal liberty laws that sought to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act. Such laws in turn infuriated the South; it saw them as further evidence of a hostile North prepared to deny slaveowners their property.
NATIONAL UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Underground Railroad fugitive slaves hailed from the Upper South, in particular, the states of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Most were males between the ages of 15 and 30 who traveled singly—by foot, horseback, wagon, stagecoach, carriage, train, and boat—and at night, often guided by the North Star. While great attention has been accorded the role of white abolitionists in assisting UGRR fugitives, this role appears somewhat overdrawn.
In the South, where slave patrols made escape an extremely risky undertaking, the fugitives, when not relying solely on their own cunning and wile to reach the free states, were mainly assisted by free blacks and fellow slaves. And in the North, free blacks—acting individually, in the vigilance committees common to many northern cities, or through their own churches and self-help organizations—were often in the forefront of efforts to provide shelter, financial help, and general support to the runaways. Indeed, on reaching the North, the "passengers" were routinely hidden, fed, clothed, allowed to rest, and cared for at each "station," which could be any kind of structure, for example, a house, church, hotel, or store.
NEW JERSEY UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
New Jersey, an integral part of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad, received fugitives mainly from the Atlantic coastline states of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Its proximity to the slave states of Delaware and Maryland, as well as its location between two of the most active UGRR metropolitan centers—Philadelphia and New York City—only serves to underscore the crucial place it occupied in the movement of runaway slaves northward.
New Jersey is also identified with the Underground Railroad’s two most celebrated figures. One, the legendary Harriet Tubman, spent the summers between 1849 and 1852 as a hotel worker in Cape May, earning money to finance her forays into her native Maryland Eastern Shore to guide fugitives slaves to freedom. And in all probability she traversed the state in leading some of her estimated 300 charges from Maryland to safety. The other, William Still, was a native New Jerseyan who was distinguished by being both the most important UGRR operative in Philadelphia and the author of the 1872 classic The Underground Railroad. This study, which offers accounts of the flights of the fugitives he assisted in Philadelphia, is especially noteworthy because it alone among nineteenth-century works on the Underground Railroad made the freedom-seeking fugitives—not the abolitionists who assisted them—the true heroic figures of the Underground Railroad’s dramatic and compelling story of struggle against oppression.
Finally, no other northern state exceeded New Jersey in the number of all-black communities that served as UGRR sanctuaries for southern fugitive slaves. Springtown
(Cumberland County), Marshalltown (Salem County), Snow Hill (present-day Lawnside, Camden County), and Timbuctoo (Burlington County) were among such places, located mainly in rural South Jersey, in which fugitive slaves also settled. One consideration for remaining in these communities was the physical safety they afforded runaway slaves; there are several instances recorded of slave catchers being run out of town with haste when they were discovered in such communities.
Railroad is an epic American story featuring the forces of righteousness arrayed against those of evil—forces locked in moral combat over the elimination of perhaps the greatest expression of inhumanity: the ownership of one human by another. Certainly the important New Jersey chapter in this antislavery saga merits recounting. Some New Jerseyans indeed transcended conventions of race, class, gender, and culture and accepted the bold challenge of striking a blow against the peculiar institution. In so doing, they, often at great sacrifice and risk, bequeathed to future generations of New Jerseyans an Underground Railroad heritage worthy of being appreciated, celebrated, and preserved—a heritage first made possible by those who, in their quest for human dignity, respect, and freedom, were moved to "steal away, steal away."