The Underground Railroad

Amazon’s dramatisation of Colson Whitehead’s novel ‘The Underground Railroad’ is captivating audiences around the world. So we thought we’d share the Quaker Tapestry panel showing the origins of the story and it’s Quaker connections. The story of Quaker involvement in the freeing of slaves is fascinating and intricate. George Fox spoke against the belief that black people were of a different order.

When the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law 1793, empowering district or circuit judges or state magistrates to decide without jury the status of an alleged escaping slave, there was strong opposition in the northern states, some of whom passed personal liberty laws. As early as 1786 a group of Philadelphia Quakers had been noted as trying to help an escaping slave. After 1807, when the slave trade was abolished as far as Britain and her colonies were concerned, and especially after the Emancipation Act 1833, which abolished slavery throughout British colonies, Canada became a safe haven for these fugitives.

The ‘Underground Railroad’ was started to help such escapes: the name arose because those involved in it so frequently spoke in railway terms – the tried routes were ‘lines’, the homes of sympathisers ‘stations’, those aiding the escape ‘conductors’.

Some of the conductors and other notable names are…

William Still

Levi and Catherine Coffin, Quakers, whose home in Ohio was the meeting point of three ‘lines’. More than 3000 fugitive slaves passed through his hands.

William Still was clerk in the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He was active in his work for fugitive slaves and his book The Underground Railroad (1872) remains one of the best accounts of the operation.

Thomas Garret, a Quaker, whose home in Delaware was a ‘station’. In 1848 he was convicted of aiding escaping slaves and fined a whopping £5,400. Undeterred by having his property taken, he redoubled his efforts and is known to have helped some 2,700 slaves to freedom.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, a fugitive slave made 16 return journeys into the south escorting some 300 slaves to freedom. Her 1869 memoirs were reissued as ‘Harriet the Moses of her people’

Lucretia Mott, a Quaker and abolitionist, was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society (1853) She urged ‘immediate and unconditional’ abolition, against the ‘gradualism’ approach of most Quakers.

The main ‘lines’, are shown in red

These were from Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky through Illinois or Ohio to Canada, and from Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia through Pennsylvania and New York or New England. There were narrow escapes, as shown at the bottom of the panel where the sheriff’s men, left, ride away while escaping slaves lie concealed in a farm cart, right.

The demand of the southern states for more stringent federal legislation led to the Fugitive Slave Act 1850, but the severity of its measures led to abuse and was self-defeating – for the operations of the abolitionists increased, the ‘Railroad’ became even more efficient, and more states passed personal liberty laws. Legislation was repealed in 1864: estimates of the number of slaves who reached freedom vary from 40,000 to 100,000.

This embroidery panel was designed and researched by Anne Wynn-Wilson and her students at Pendle Hill, Pennsylvania; drawings in bottom section by children of Wilmington High School; embroidered by the Armitage sisters.

‘John Woolman’ and ‘The Slave Trade’ are other Quaker Tapestry panels concerned with the abolition of slavery.

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“Brilliant, in many ways. I love embroidery, so thought this would just be interesting to see, but found it was incredibly informative not just about individual Quakers but how much they have done in our society.”

Well worth the entrance fee for the educational aspects alone!