In some localities, like Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Wilmington, Del., and Newport, Ind. (site of the activities of Levi Coffin), energetic organizers did manage to loosely systematize the work; Quakers were particularly prominent as conductors, and among the free blacks the exploits of Harriet Tubman stand out. In all cases, however, it is extremely difficult to separate fact from legend, especially since relatively few enslaved blacks, probably no more than between 1,000 and 5,000 a year between 1830 and 1860, escaped successfully. Far from being kept secret, details of escapes on the Underground Railroad were highly publicized and exaggerated in both the North and the South, although for different reasons. The abolitionists used the Underground Railroad as a propaganda device to dramatize the evils of slavery; Southern slaveholders publicized it to illustrate Northern infidelity to the fugitive slave laws. The effect of this publicity, with its repeated tellings and exaggerations of slave escapes, was to create an Underground Railroad legend that represented a humanitarian ideal of the pre–Civil War period but strayed far from reality.
W. Still's The Underground Railroad (1872) contains the narratives of slaves who escaped the South through Philadelphia. See also W. H. Siebert's pioneering though somewhat misleading The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898, repr. 1968); for extensively revised accounts, see L. Gara, The Liberty Line (1961), D. Blight, ed., Passages to Freedom (2004), F. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan (2005), and E. Foner, Gateway to Freedom (2015).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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