The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was a route to independence that used railroad terminology to describe itself. “Conductors" were people leading slaves to freedom. “Pilots" went south to seek slaves wanting to escape, who were known as “passengers". “Stations" were safe-houses and businesses where the passengers and conductors find refuge on the way north.
Myth has made the Underground Railroad sound more organized than it truly was. Slaves were not picked up and carried away to emancipation. The first moves were their own. They needed to find courage and opportunity to flee. They needed the ingenuity and creativity to survive. Once on the road, they needed the good fortune to find assistance.
Slaves knew they had to move by night and rest during the day to avoid recapture. Once across the Ohio River, they knew they were in a land where slavery was illegal, but the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant they could still be taken back to their owners. They needed aid and luck until they reached Canada, where their former masters could not reach them.
Aid would come in the form of sympathizers with directions through the country, station owners with hospitality and conductors such as Tubman to lead fugitives with stealth. Knowledge and intelligence were passed mouth-to-mouth by conspirators until the information reached slaves bold enough to make a break. Advice to follow the North Star or the Drinking Gourd (the Big Dipper) was commonly passed on. “Follow the Drinking Gourd" became a popular folksong typical of “map songs" taught to guide slaves north.