African American History Is American Hstory
African American History Is American History
African American History Is American History 


Why do I describe the Underground Railroad as a mass civil disobedience movement? Simply because every person involved in it was breaking the law.  The Underground Railroad was the greatest civil disobedience movement in our country's history. 

What does civil disobedience mean?  Civil disobedience means that masses of people decide to risk jail rather than obey a law that they believe violates their moral principles.

It is true that many people in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960's used civil disobedience to fight Jim Crow laws with sit-ins and marches and found themselves in jail. Other young men chose jail rather being drafted into the army because of their belief in non- violence. I believe that the Underground Railroad was different for two reasons.

The most important difference between the 1960's and the Underground Railroad movement of the pre-Civil War years of the 1800’s, was the fact that the Fugitive Slave Law was a federal provision written into the US Constitution. One of the first laws passed by Congress in 1789 implemented the Fugitive Slave Law provision of the Constitution. Any person helping a fugitive was violating the law.

Not only were rescuers like Harriet Tubman or operators of Underground Railroad terminals, such as William Still breaking the law, but so was any person choosing to help a runaway slave.  If you simply fed a hungry fugitive, or found a fugitive hiding in a field and directed him to what you suspected was a safe house, you were also violating the Fugitive Slave Law. Even donating a few dollars to help finance one of the many projects supported by the Underground Railroad made you a law breaker. The ladies of a respectable sewing circle who volunteered to make a few shirts for some raggedy fugitives had now joined the Civil Disobedience movement. 

The second reason I believe this movement was so unique is because never in our history have millions of Americans chosen to defy a federal law.

This is the story of how this massive disobedience helped end slavery in our nation.

The most important offender under the Fugitive Law was, of course any slave who chose to escape from servitude. He was committing the crime of stealing himself. This must be one of the most unique crimes in human history.

The act of Civil Disobedience that was the most dangerous to carry out was that of rescuer or, as the Railroad liked to call them, conductor. Yet hundreds of brave men and women chose to travel south to liberate family, friends or even strangers. The most famous of these conductors was Harriet Tubman.  I want to tell you the story of another of these unknown conductors.

John Fairfield was one of the most unusual conductors of the Underground Railroad. His family were Virginia slaveholders, but he hated slavery. As soon as he was old enough, he left Virginia taking along with him his boyhood friend who was one of his uncle's slaves.  When he returned home for a family visit he discovered there was a warrant out for his arrest for the crime of slave stealing.  Fairfield fled Virginia but not alone; this time he took with him a group of fugitive slaves. When he arrived in Canada with his band of ex-slaves, he discovered he was famous.  Fairfield was besieged by African Americans begging him to rescue their family members. John Fairfield had a new career. For twelve years he made regular trips into almost every southern state. He usually pretended to be a southern businessman or sometimes even a slave trader.  One fugitive told Levi Coffin, head of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, of his experience with John Fairfield. "I never saw such a man as Fairfield. He told us he would take us out of slavery or he would die in the attempt if we would do our part, which we promised to do. We all agreed to fight until we died rather than be recaptured."  The fugitives were attacked several times by patrollers, but the fugitives managed to drive them off. One night slave hunters ambushed both sides of a bridge, making it impossible for the fugitives to cross over to the other side. Then the slave hunters waited for the fugitives to surrender. Instead of surrendering, Fairfield ordered the band to charge to the front and attack. The slave hunters, amazed by this unexpected assault, scattered and ran like scared sheep.[1]

The real unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad, according to the white abolitionist Samuel Howe, were those escapees - "as many as 500 people a year" who “went secretly back to their old homes and brought away their wives and children at much peril and cost."

By the 1830's the Civil Disobedience movement was growing. The public faces of this movement were called Vigilance Committees. They were popping up in cities and towns all over the North where African Americans had established their own communities. Ostensibly these organizations had been created to protect free black citizens from being kidnaped by slave hunters, but in reality they were the secret terminals of the Underground Railroad. One of the most famous of these Vigilance Committees was in Philadelphia where William Still presided over a vast network of escape routes that began in the South and spread throughout the North into Canada.  Still's office was frequently Harriet Tubman's final stop, because she knew that her fugitives would be in expert hands.

Another of the Railroad's main Vigilance Committees was in New York City. It was organized by the remarkable David Ruggles, and when illness forced Ruggles into early retirement, Lewis Napoleon took over.  David Ruggles boasted that in the first ten years of its operation, the committee helped around 2,000 fugitives gain their freedom.[2]Detroit's Vigilance Committee was very important because the city was on the Detroit River. The constant flow of vessels traveling from Detroit to Canada carried more self-emancipated men and women than any other port in America.  Detroit’s Vigilance Committee was the first to organize its own team of conductors, called the African American Mysteries, to rescue family and friends. Detroit was one of John Fairfield's favorite stops.  

Western Michigan was especially hated by Kentucky slaveholders because so many of their bondsmen had found safe havens among these slavery hating people. The slaveholders’ solution was to hire a group of slave hunters to recapture their "property." A series of battles that the people of Battle Creek, Marshall, and Cass County waged against these slave catchers produced a new level of resistance against the Fugitive Slave Law. When, in every one of these communities, slave hunters attempted to seize a family of fugitives they were immediately surrounded by angry citizens.  The slave catchers suddenly found themselves in jail charged with kidnaping. By the 1850's, most professional slave hunters decided that Michigan was not a safe place to pursue fugitives. Underground Railroad members were delighted to hear about Michigan's victory over the Fugitive Slave Law and decided that they should also use a kidnaping charge against slave catchers who showed up in their own neighborhoods.

In 1837 abolitionists had been devastated by a ruling by the United States Supreme Court (the Prigg Decision.) This ruling stated that under the Fugitive Slave Law the slaveholders’ right to recapture their slave property outweighed every law passed by northern states to protect the rights of their black citizens from kidnaping.  The Prigg Decision had negated every one of these Personal Liberty Laws.

In 1842 George Latimore, a fugitive slave who had been living in Boston for many years, was arrested and thrown into jail. Antislavery activists turned to the courts to help release Latimore but they were told that because of the Prigg decision they were helpless to prevent Latimore from being sent back into slavery.

On October 30, 1842, 4,000 angry protesters crowded into Faneuil Hall demanding that their government do something to save Latimore. Most of the protesters felt that their cause was helpless.  Then something surprising happened. A group of lawyers stood up and announced that they had found a loophole in the Prigg decision.  In the same ruling the court had stated that since, the Fugitive Slave Law was a Federal law, state officials did not have to aid in the recapture of any fugitive. A massive petition campaign was quickly organized, demanding that a law be passed forbidding any state or local official from enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law.   This law was passed in record time by the Massachusetts State Legislature. Not only did the legislation prevent any elected state, county, city, or local official from assisting in any way the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law; it also refused to allow any state property, such as courthouses or jails to be used in the arrest or even the temporary detention of a suspected fugitive.

Other states were thrilled by this loophole in the Prigg ruling and quickly passed their own set of new Personal Liberty Laws. Bostonians’ anger against Latimore's arrest grew so intense that his owner, James Grey, offered to sell Latimore for a scant $400. The money was quickly raised and soon George Latimore was a free man.


                                                 THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW OF 1850

The Compromise of 1850 saved the Union from Civil War for eleven years. One of the compromise's most important features was the passage of a tough, formidable new Fugitive Slave Law. This law abolished every one of the new Personal Liberty Laws based on the Prigg Decision. Even worse, this new law required that any citizen could be ordered by federal marshals, private posses, or individual slaveholders to help in the recapture of a suspected fugitive. Northerners were furious when they realized that this new law turned them all into potential slave hunters.   Southerners hoped that the law would help destroy the North's Underground Railroad, but instead it changed the Railroad from a modest resistance movement against slavery into the greatest most successful civil disobedience movement in American history.

On October 8, 1850 the Detroit Vigilance Committee heard that that a fugitive had just been arrested. Hundreds of armed black men surrounded the jail. Federal troops had to be called in to help transfer the prisoner from the jail to the courthouse. The worried owner wondered how he was going to actually transport his slave back South. He was advised that he would be safer if he sold his slave. Five hundred dollars was raised by subscription. Since the slave holder had already spent two hundred dollars in his recapture effort, he returned home with three hundred dollars in his pocket for a slave who was worth close to eight hundred dollars.

The response in the city of Chicago was even more disturbing.  On October 21, 1850 the City Council not only released city officials from enforcing the new law, but created a new special branch of the police department composed of black cadre whose assignment was to patrol the streets, monitoring every suspected slave catcher to make sure he did not apprehend a fugitive slave.

In the eyes of most slaveholders Boston was the epicenter of the antislavery movement. Boston was the home of William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Antislavery Society. The Massachusetts Legislature had just elected Boston's most antislavery politician, Charles Sumner as the state's new U.S. senator.  The question southerners most wanted answered was, would the Fugitive Slave Law be enforced in this most abolitionist of cities? On the morning of February 15, 1851 Shadrack Minkins was seized and rushed into the Boston Court House in the hope that he would be safely on his way to Virginia before Underground Railroad men even heard about his arrest. Those hopes were about to be dashed. Boston's Vigilance Committee not only had heard about the arrest but they were getting ready for a dramatic rescue. The moment came when someone opened the courtroom door just a crack. Lewis Hayden, leader of the Vigilance Committee, gave the signal and then he pushed open the door and his band of rescuers filled the room. Twenty rescuers seized Minkins and rushed him down the stairs. By the time the U.S. Marshals had reached the street, Minkins had found temporary sanctuary in a safe house inside the black community.  It did not take a group of Railroad conductors long to help Minkins reach safety in Montreal.

The federal government immediately arrested several of the rescuers for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law. The first man to stand trial was Lewis Hayden. In spite of the fact that several court room observers, including a U.S. Marshal, were able to identify Hayden as the leader of the rescuers, a jury refused to convict him. Daniel Webster the new Secretary of State fumed that the Shadrack Minkins rescue was treason.

Boston was both a stronghold of abolition and the home of some of the richest men in the North. These men were the cotton merchants whose businesses were bound up with cotton.  They promised their southern business partners that their city would indeed enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Their chance came just two months later when another fugitive was arrested, Thomas Sims. This time the federal government was ready. To the shock of Bostonians when they woke up that morning they discovered that their courthouse was wrapped in chains. Even venerable judges were forced to crawl under the chains in order to enter the building. Outside the building 500 policemen were patrolling the streets.   When the court ruled that Sims was indeed a fugitive, federal marshals were so afraid of a rescue that they waited until 3:00 AM to transport Sims to the waiting ship. Boston's largest newspaper, Commonwealth spoke for the city's elite when they boasted that "Boston is redeemed… the Fugitive Slave Law has been enforced."[3] Some southerners were not totally convinced. It had, after all cost twenty thousand dollars to return Sims to slavery.

In Syracuse, New York there were no businessmen tied to cotton.  City officials had quickly organized their own official vigilance committee to oppose the Fugitive Slave Law. When on August 1, 1851, Jerry McHenry, a fugitive, was seized by a U.S. Marshal this committee sprang into action. Every church bell in town began ringing and an angry crowd quickly gathered outside the courthouse. The nervous judge decided to adjourn the afternoon hearing. While his deputies surrounded McHenry, the marshal looked out of the courthouse window and watched as more and more people gathered outside the building. He shouted out to the crowd that he would shoot anyone who attempted to rescue McHenry.  The vigilance committee's answer was not long in coming.  Jo Norton, himself a fugitive slave, gave a signal and suddenly a group of stout black men appeared carrying a twenty foot long log on their shoulders. At Norton's command this battering ram was hurled at the courthouse door and when it was shattered, Norton led the rescuers up the stairs, waving a crowbar in his hands. The rescuers quickly tied up the marshal and his deputies, and located McHenry, who had been severely beaten by the arresting officials. They carried McHenry down the stairs, where he was greeted by the cheering crowd. He was gently placed in a carriage drawn by a white horse.  As the marshal and his deputies came down the stairs and into the street they were confronted by dozens of carriages also drawn by white horses. The federal government did arrest several of the rescuers but they were never able to bring any of them to trial.  The McHenry Rescue was celebrated by the city of Syracuse as a holiday every year until after the Civil War.

It was only one month later that the federal government was confronted with a much more serious violation of the Fugitive Slave Law; this time it was an open revolt.  In early September William Still sent an urgent message to William Parker, head of the Underground Railroad in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He had just heard that Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slaveholder was on his way to the town of Christiana, where Parker lived, accompanied by a posse of fifty men led by Deputy Marshal Henry Kline. Their purpose was to seize four of Gorsuch's slaves known to be living in the village.

William Parker was one of the most brilliant operators of the Railroad. He had created a safe haven for hundreds of fugitives, in spite of the fact that Lancaster County was just across the border from Maryland, and the community was constantly invaded by slave hunters. Parker was able to maintain this safe haven because most of the white settlers were antislavery Quakers. Even more important, Parker had organized Lancaster fugitives into a military band that regularly patrolled the area. Whenever they discovered anyone they believed was a slave hunter they did not hesitate to use threats to scare him into leaving. These threats turned into attacks if any slave catcher dared to attempt a real kidnaping. Slave catchers were reluctant to risk their lives just to recapture a runaway.

The moment Parker received Still's message seven members of his band armed themselves and moved into the Parker house. At dawn, the posse arrived in Christiana. Kline knocked on Parker's door demanding that he be allowed to search the house. Parker angrily refused. As all this was going on, Eliza Parker crept upstairs and blew on a horn sounding the alarm. Kline looked up and saw dozens of armed men marching towards him. The battle of Christiana had begun. By noon Edward Gorsuch lay dead next to his wounded son. A wounded Marshal Kline had fled from the scene. William Parker and his band of fugitives had disappeared from Christiana.

This was the most serious threat to the Fugitive Slave Law yet, and the Federal Government was determined to prosecute someone.  They did arrest thirty eight black men, although they had little evidence that these men had had anything to do with the battle. What surprised everyone was the arrest of two white Quakers. These men had stood in front of the Parker house begging both sides to stop the fighting. The crime leveled against these two pacifist Quakers was that, when Kline ordered the two men to join in the battle to recapture the fugitives, they refused. Federal officials therefore charged the Quakers with treason. It took A jury only twenty minutes to declare the prisoners "not guilty."

During all of this turmoil, William Parker arrived in Canada. He was told that the governor of Pennsylvania was demanding his extradition on the grounds of murder. Parker waited anxiously in the hall while government officials discussed the issue. When the meeting was over the Governor General of Canada, Lord Elgin, emerged from his office and announced to Parker, "You are as free a man as I am."[4]

In 1854 southern leaders were worried about how the new Fugitive Slave Law was being enforced. They needed another political victory. Too many politicians were beginning to advocate secession. The answer was the Kansas Nebraska bill. For years the problem of where slavery in America would be allowed had been governed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.   This compromise had drawn a line (the Mason Dixon line.) Slavery would be legal below the line. Every state north of this line would be free. Now the South had nullified this compromise by passing a new law, the Kansas Nebraska Act, which would now allow Kansas and every other state to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to be slave or free. This new rule was called Popular Sovereignty. Even Northerners who had supported the Compromise of 1850 were outraged.

On May 24, just two days after the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act, Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave was arrested on the streets of Boston. The city's vigilance committee, led by Lewis Hayden and Thomas Higginson, led a group of rescuers up the courthouse steps, hoping to achieve a quick rescue, but the courthouse was too heavily guarded and they were forced to retreat. President Franklin Pierce was determined to prevent any rescue of Burns. Troops filled the entire courthouse.  The government strategy was to make it impossible for people to get inside the building.

The president ordered the army to send hundreds of troops stationed in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York into Boston to make sure there was no rescue.  Thousands of troops began filling the city streets. Small pieces of artillery were wheeled into the square.  Boston looked like an occupied city and its citizens were furious.

Even conservative Bostonians were beginning to question their support of the Compromise of 1850. Members of the Merchant's Exchange, who had cheered when Thomas Sims was returned to slavery, announced that they now opposed the Fugitive Slave Law and began circulating petitions to repeal the law.  Both black and white waiters were refusing to serve food to those troops who were guarding Burns. The trial of Anthony Burns was a brief one. Commissioner Loring quickly declared Burns to be a fugitive slave and ordered him to be returned to his owner in Virginia. With angry crowds filling the streets of Boston the problem for federal officials was how to move Burns from the courthouse to Boston harbor and onto the revenue cutter that was waiting to transport the prisoner.

The journey began as army troops with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets began clearing the courthouse square and the street leading to the Long Wharf. They told the crowd that if anyone disobeyed their commands they had orders to fire their weapons. As Burns left the courthouse, he must have been somewhat cheered by what he saw. All the businesses in the city were closed and their windows were draped in black. A coffin covered with black cloth hung suspended over State Street. The crowd was so dense it took three hours for the troops to clear a path.  People climbed onto rooftops and filled side streets. Fifty thousand people followed Burns as he was marched down State Street, crying “shame” at the federal troops. Stories of Boston's angry resistance to Burns’ recapture was front page news all over the South.  The textile magnate Amos A. Lawrence's response to the government's enforcement of the fugitive Slave Law was typical. "We went to bed one night old fashioned conservative compromise union Whigs and waked up stark mad abolitionists.”[5]   Anthony Burns was the last fugitive ever arrested in Boston.

 That was not, however the end of the story. A secret deal was arranged between a group of Boston abolitionists and Colonel Sutter, Burns’ owner. Sutter promised them that as soon as the upheaval around Burns had subsided, he would sell Burns to an anonymous buyer who would actually be a cover for these abolitionists. Burns was soon a free man.

All over the North people were insisting that, because of the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act, the Fugitive Slave Law had been nullified. When the fugitive, Joshua Glover, was captured in Wisconsin it did not take long for rescuers to break into jail and send him off to Canada. The federal government arrested a few of the rescuers, but the Supreme Court of Wisconsin set the men free based on their ruling that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional. This ruling upset southern politicians, so   President Buchanan immediately asked the United States Supreme Court to announce that Wisconsin courts had no legal authority to rule on a federal law.

In 1858 when John Price, a fugitive slave, was seized in the town of Oberlin, Ohio it was not hard to find hundreds of townsmen ready to join in rescuing Price.  Led by Charles Langston (grandfather of Langston Hughes) this throng of rescuers rode into the town of Wellington, broke into the hotel room where Price was being held by slave hunters, and Price was soon on his way to Canada.  President James Buchanan vowed that this time these rescuers were going to be tried and convicted under the Fugitive Slave Law. When the trial began the federal prosecutor insisted that only Democratic Party members be permitted to serve on the jury, and the judge agreed. It is not surprising that Charles Langston, one of the first rescuers to stand trial, was declared guilty. Langston and the other rescuers were placed in the Cleveland jail. Under the supervision of an indulgent antislavery sheriff, the prisoners became national celebrities. The prisoners entertained a stream of well known celebrities. Newspapers sent their best reporters to interview the rescuers.  Frank Leslie's Weekly, one of the most popular magazines in the nation put a picture of the rescuers on their front cover. The prisoners were encouraged to write dozens of antislavery pamphlets. Ministers begged them to supply them with sermons. The rescuers became so popular that they began publishing their own weekly newspaper right from the jail.

Even more upsetting to federal officials was the fact that a Lorain County grand jury had just indicted Andrew Jennings and his three companions on a charge of kidnaping John Price.   Meanwhile the prisoner's defense attorneys had decided to include, in their appeal to Ohio's Supreme Court, a challenge to the legality of the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1859 the new Republican Party scored a resounding electoral victory over the Whig and Democratic Party. This victory was especially disturbing to southerners because this was also the largest turnout of voters in the state's history.

When the president announced he was going to remove the rescuers from the Cleveland jail and place them in federal custody, Governor Salmon Chase informed Buchanan that if he attempted to remove the prisoners by using federal troops, he might find that some members of the Ohio state militia would decide to fight army troops and protect the rescuers. A hasty compromise was reached. The rescuers would be freed of all charges, and in exchange the charges of kidnaping would be dropped against the slave hunters. Finally the Ohio Supreme Court would not hold any hearings on the Fugitive Slave Law.

The mass movement in the North to defy the Fugitive Slave Law convinced even many slaveholders, who wanted to remain in the Union, that northerners had turned against slavery. Secession seemed their only choice. History proved that the only way that the South would abolish slavery was when they were militarily defeated by the Union army.

                                                        *      *      *    






Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement. New York: Harper& Brothers, 1941    Chapters 6 and 7 covers this time period. Campbell, Stanley. The Slave Catchers: The Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law 1850-1860   New York: W.W. Norton Co. Inc. 1968.                                                                                                                                  Millstein, Evelyn. The Underground Railroad: A Movement That Changed America.  Michigan: St. Clair Press, 2015. Chapters 9 and 10 cover this time period.




Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. New York: Arno Press 1968.





Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Frost , Karolyn Smardz and Veta Smith Tucker. A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016. 

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. David Ruggles; A Black Radical Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2010.

Mull, Carol E. The Underground Railroad In Michigan.  North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2010.

Still William. The Underground Railroad. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc. 1970.  






Brandt, Nat. The Town That Started the Civil War.  Syracuse:  Syracuse University Press 1990   The town is Oberlin.

Collison, Gary. Shadrack Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1997.

Levy, Leonard W. " The Sims Case: The Fugitive Slave Law in Boston in 1851" Journal of Negro History January 1950.

Von Frank, Albert J.  The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1998.      




[1] Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. New York: Arno Press. 1968. 

[2] Foner, Eric. Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York W.W. Norton & Co. 2015 (Pg. 66)  

[3] Levy, Leonard W. “Sims Case: The Fugitive Slave Law in Boston in 1851" Journal of Negro History January 1950 (pg. 44)

[4] Bacon, Margaret Hope. Rebellion at Christiana. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1975. (pg. 190)

[5] Von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998 (pg. 207)  

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