The secret ‘Underground Railroad’ network which led tens of thousands of slaves on 2,000 miles hikes to freedom ahead of the Civil War has finally been revealed 200 years on.
A network of undercover roads, trails, shelter and safe houses, the paths were the only means for many to escape the South and journey to Canada and the free states of the North.
Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales has painstakingly documented each step of the perilous journey many took through plantations, forests and swamps to sympathetic abolitionists and ultimately freedom.
Over a course of months the artist photographed many of the known routes – travelling on foot as the slaves would – in the first ever attempt to photograph the secret pathways which until now were only recorded in the historical written accounts of those who used them.
Her foreboding images printed together in her book highlight the dangers that both the fleeing slaves and those who helped them faced as they gave their lives in the quest of freedom and justice.
Many of those heroic figures or the ‘conductors’ who helped slaves escape, knew only their small part of the journey – with secrecy of paramount importance to protect others involved further down the line. \
Bounty hunters were often dispatched by slave-owners trying to find their escaped slaves alongside federal marshals attempting to close the railroad down.
Many of these ‘conductors’ infiltrated plantations by posing as slaves in order to lead an escape attempt. Harriet Tubman – herself an escaped slave woman – was one such figure, fearlessly sneaking back into the plantations that once held her to save others.
The groups usually traveled at night – taking refuge in safe houses or whatever shelter they could find along the way from one ‘station’ to the next.
Supplies – including food, water and blankets – were often hidden for fleeing groups along the route.
Though most traveled by foot some abolitionists were more ambitious using wagons and horses.
Michna-Bales herself focused on routes starting near Louisiana, moving north along the Natchez Trace, Wired reports. Using historical documents she traced where groups would stop on their journeys north.
She traveled 2,000 miles over three months at night breaking the journeys into 20 mile segments as slaves would have to do.
‘Growing up in the Midwest, the Underground Railroad was understandably an important part of our school curriculum given that some of the routes ran literally through our backyards,’ Michna-Bales told the New York Times.
‘I became fascinated with the topic and often imagined what it must have been like to walk thousands of miles for the chance to be free. The Underground Railroad has been described as the first civil rights movement in the United States because it blurred racial, gender, religious and socio-economic lines and united people in the common cause of ending the injustice of slavery.’
‘I began to understand along the way that there were so many different people who made up the Underground Railroad, from freedom-seekers themselves to other slaves, free blacks, abolitionists, Quakers, Presbyterians, the wealthy, the poor, female, male’.
‘My hope is that this project will help illuminate the darkened corners of our shared history and show us that when we work together great things can be accomplished. As Frederick Douglass may have wished, may we all come together through the darkness into the light.’
The Underground Railroad was first commonly referred to around 1839 but had existed, at least informally, for many years before.
Many slaves personally attempted to flee – many further south – in bid to make it overseas.
The Railroad north reached its height by 1860 saving approximately 100,000.
The images are all taken from Michna- Bales’s book: ‘Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad’ by Jeanine Michna-Bales (Princeton Architectural Press).