Guide to the Records of Beneath the Underground:
The Flight to Freedom and the Communities of Antebellum Maryland
A fundamental objective of Beneath the Underground is to explore the legacy of the Underground Railroad with the primary documents available at the Maryland State Archives. The purpose of this guide is to help website visitors understand the usefulness and history of the records mined for this project, as well as, to give insight into our research methodology.
Southern Underground Railroad
Though we may never know with any certainty what motivated Marylanders of all walks to violate the laws of their state by helping those on the run, the record reflects that many did indeed assist fugitives from slavery. This type of activity has been traditionally interpreted as situated in free states, not slave states like Maryland (click map at left for more). Recognition has been afforded the fact that the South was indeed the source of slaves fleeing during the Antebellum Era, and that to actually reach a free state - to tap into the organized network for assistance in the free states known as the Underground Railroad - constituted no mean feat. Yet little recognition has been afforded the environments out of which the slaves fled, including but not limited to the slave communities on the plantations and other environments of bondage, as having helped to foster these results - successful flight. Stripped of long refuted notions of the inferiority and complete dependency of enslaved communities, evidence suggests that Southerners (black and white) had a role to play in helping slaves cross the Mason-Dixon Line.
Such a role employed conventions of assistance, if not a true system. The most important attribute of these conventions of assistance reveal Antebellum communities, especially in Maryland, to have represented something of a network that complemented the more formal, regional networks of the free states. From the farthest vantage, then, two networks are apparent. The first - what we are calling the Northern Underground Railroad - entailed the concerted, organized, integrated system of communication, transportation, and finance aimed at assisting fugitives slaves, upon there arrival in free states, to avoid recapture and return to slave states. The second network, though by no means secondary network - the Southern Underground Railroad - carried forth a more basic penchant of resistance to slavery as exhibited by the enslaved themselves (and others) on the plantations in the slave states. This involved running, or in a wide range of ways helping others to run, or keep running. These two networks can be seen as cooperative. Indeed, the Southern Underground Railroad benefited from the Northern Underground Railroad. Closest inspection reveals, however, that the Northern Underground Railroad could not have existed without the Southern Underground Railroad. As to the different functions of the two networks, one fact is clear: with but a few known exceptions, abolitionists and their organizations for assisting folks on the run did not - indeed, could not - reach into the Southern slave states and pull blacks out. "While many sympathized with the slave in his chains, and freely wept over his destiny, or gave money to help buy his freedom, but few could be found who were willing to rake the risk of going into the South, and standing face to face with Slavery, in order to conduct a panting slave to freedom," wrote Underground Railroad chronicler, William Still, "the undertaking was too fearful to think of in most cases."1 How the enslaved reached the stations of the Northern Underground Railroad, that is, was the work of the Southern Underground Railroad. "It is clear," noted John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger in Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, "some runaways had a network of black friends and loved ones from whom they could expect assistance."2 Furthermore, though beyond the scope of this particular study, it has been largely conceded that what we are calling the Southern Underground Railroad was much older, dating to the seventeenth century in all probability.3
Thus, rather than view the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania - the Mason and Dixon Line - as one between monoliths of solitary flight and assisted flight, it may be more accurate to recast that line as a Promontory of the Underground Railroad. For, just as the ceremonial golden spike driven-in at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869, would represent the union of two railway systems, so too did the Mason and Dixon Line represent the union of two systems of flight. In terms of opportunity to support such flight that operated "beneath" anything connected to a more recognizable Northern Underground Railroad, Maryland was uniquely situated. Most important in this way was its access to major cities at Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Free blacks generally, urban ones in particular, comprised the usual suspects for those pursuing runaways. If a fugitive had kinfolk in nearby big cities (enslaved or free), pursuers presumed their complicity. Furthermore, the cities of the Upper South, particularly larger cities, offered perhaps the safest place for the influence of Northern abolitionists to engage those on the run; for connections between the "lines" of the Southern Underground Railroad and the Northern Underground Railroad. It is believed, for example, that free black street vendors in Baltimore acted as "agents," directing would-be passengers to people in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere.4 In this and other ways, activities transpired in Maryland can be seen as feeding the Northern Underground Railroad, which could only pick up "passengers" once they had reached Pennsylvania, escorting them to New York, New England, or Canada. What is more, Marylanders - particularly black Marylanders - could and did act independently in helping those on the run. Frederick Douglass's account of his escape from Baltimore demonstrates this clearly; he would not have gotten out without the complicity and willful participation of others, enslaved and free. None of his co-conspirators was an "abolitionist" in the traditional usage of the term.5
Top of page