Thursday, January 13, 2011

Code Words Were Essential in Conducting the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a pivotal time in American history. The bravery and determination of those opposed to slavery is one to admire and emulate. To take the time out to have compassion and empathy of others’ plights will certainly bring a greater understanding of each other. Beyond the bravery, the organizing of the Underground Railroad came to fruition through the use of code words. By utilizing code words it assured that those for slavery would not “catch-on” to the escape routes and intentions of the slaves to achieve freedom.

Some of the most common code words:

Abolitionist – a person who demanded immediate emancipation of slaves.

Agent – a person who coordinated the course of escape.

Bundles of wood – escaping slaves to be expected.

Conductors – the people that helped the slaves along the Underground Railroad.

Drinking Gourd – Big Dipper and the North Star, which aided the slaves in their nighttime travels to ensure they were traveling in the correct direction.

Forwarding – the transportation of salves from one station to the next.

Freight or Packages – the slaves were considered passengers or cargo.

Heaven – referred to Canada because once there freedom was imminent.

Load of Potatoes – slaves hidden in wagons under farm produce.

Moses – Harriet Tubman, a conductor who was instrumental in aiding slaves to freedom.

Quakers – white folks that did not believe in slavery.

River Jordan – The Mississippi River or the Ohio River.

Shepherds – people who escorted slaves from one station to the next.

Station – place of safety, a safe house.

Station Master – the keeper of a safe house.

Stockholder – one who donated items to the running of the Underground Railroad.

The use of code phrases was also instrumental in communicating along the Underground Railroad:

“A friend of a friend sent me” – this statement indicates that the slave was sent by the Underground Railroad network.

“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus” – a phrase from a spiritual hymn to alert other slaves an escape attempt would occur soon.

“The dead trees will show you the way” – a telling sign that moss grows on the north side of dead trees, hence providing direction.

“The river bank makes a mighty good road” – since dogs cannot follow a human’s scent through water this is the best way to travel.

“The river ends between two hills” – visual directions to the Ohio River.

“The wind blows from the South today” – this signals the workers on the Underground Railroad that fugitive slaves were in the area.

“When the sun comes back and the first quail calls” – early spring was the best time to escape via the Underground Railroad.

The wealth of information on the Underground Railroad is immense. Interested in learning more, I offer the following resources to get you started:

Carson, Mary Kay. The Underground Railroad for Kids: From Slavery to Freedom. Chicago Review Press, January 2005.

Afrolumens Project, Central Pennsylvania African American History for Everyone.
“Names Used for Enslaved People in Pennsylvania”

Oracle Education Foundation – The Think Quest Library.
“Underground Railroad, The Fight to End Slavery – Timeline”

Best wishes,
Donna M. McDine
Award-winning Children's Author
The Golden Pathway ~ August 2010 ~ Guardian Angel Publishing, Inc.

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