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Coded Slave Songs How They Were Essential to the Underground Railroad

Coded slave songs were essential to the Underground Railroad.

Slaves endured an incredible amount of racism and prejudice in the 1800s, and they felt they could escape it through the Underground Railroad, a system slaves used to make their way to the free states in Northern U.S.A. and Canada.  There were several conductors on the Underground Railroad.  A woman named Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor.

During the Underground Railroad, slaves sang songs that conveyed more than just personal feelings; they contained coded messages and direction to help them on their path to freedom.  These coded slave songs were essential to slaves in their escape from slavery.

Before 1800, free black men had so-called rights of citizenship.  "In some places, they could vote, serve on juries, andd work in skilled trades" (Race-based).  When the times began to change, so did the actions and views of the citizens of the United States.  As it became more necessary to justify slavery, and racism was spreading rapidly, the few rights blacks had were diminished (ibid).  Not only did they lose rights because of the color of their skin, they also became at risk of physical harm.

From 1820 to 1850, Northern African-Americans often became the targets of mob violence.  Blacks were beaten, stoned, and occasionally murdered.  Black homes and public buildings were looted, ransacked, and burned by whites.  These horrific acts of violence mostly occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (ibid).  Of course, the blacks and their white allies were not about to take this and they reacted in several different ways. They founded their own public buildings, created mutual aid societies providing financial assistance to the needy, and supported fugitives adjusting to life in the North.

Blacks also took legal measures to prevent the depletion of black rights and protested against new restrictions (ibid).  Some states passed laws, which counteracted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, called Personal Liberty Laws.  These laws protected fugitives and secured some black rights of that state.  Actions like these, added to continuous effort to abolish slavery (ibid).  Still, the nation was a long way from treating blacks equally and showing them respect.  In 1857, the Dred Scott decision declared that blacks did not have citizenship in the United States (ibid).  It would be a very long time before they had the same constitutional rights as whites.

The Underground Railroad was a large network of people who gave help to fugitive slaves to get to the Northern states of the U.S. or Canada (Underground Railroad).  The system was not either underground or a railroad, but got its name because of the quick, secretive method fugitives used to escape (Donald).  "It consisted of many individuals -- many whites, but predominatelly black -- who knew only of the local efforts to aid fugitives and not of the overall operation" (Underground Railroad).  Sometimes, the fugitives could be captured after reaching their destination (Donald).

The UGRR (Underground Railroad) actually used railroad terms.  Homes and businesses where fugitives went to eat and rest were known as "stations" or "depots."  These stations were spaced between 10 and 20 miles apart from each other.  The people in charge of the stations were called "stationmasters."  Also, people who contributed goods or money were named the "stockholders."  The people in charge of moving fugitives from one station to the next were known as "conductors" (ibid).

Conductors were extremely important to the UGRR.  The first step they took to get the slaves to freedom was to help them escape from their slaveholders.  On occasion, a conductor would pose as a slave and enter a plantation, then lead the fugitives northward.  They moved by the darkness of night.  When they reached a station, they would eat, rest, and hide in out-of-the-way places during the day.  Conductors led them through every difficulty by means of the UGRR to get them in the North where they would be free.

The most famous conductor was Harriet Tubman.  This extraordinary woman escaped slavery and led about 300 fugitives to freedom through the UGRR.  African-Americans referred to her as Moses, named afer the biblical man who led the Jewish population from Egypt (Scruggs).  In 1844, she married a freed slave named John Tubman.  John refused to help her escape and in 1849, she freed herself from slaveery, and through the UGRR, went to Philadelphia without him (ibid).  The night Tubman escaped, she entered the slave quarters singing a song that began, "When the old chariot comes, I'm going to leave you."  This was the way she chose to tell them her plan (Haskins).  Tubman promised to go back to Maryland and aid other fugitives to freedom.

Shortly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she made her first return (Scruggs).  It was in 1851 and her mission was originally to persuade John to come with her.  When she arrived at the plantation, she was bitterly disappointed.  John not only threatened to tell the master if she did not leave quickly, he was also remarried.  This did not stop Tubman from going to the slave quarters and gathering a small group to lead to freedom (Haskins). 

To make herself know when she entered a plantation, Tubman would sing coded spirituals.  These songs helped her gather groupd and tell them what to do as they traveled (Haskins).  In total, Tubman returned 19 times and conducted about 300 slaves through the UGRR to freedom.  Never did Tubman lose a slave or get caught.  She even traveled with a gun in hand threatening to shoot anyone who tried to give up and return to the slaveholders.  Rewards to anyone capturing Tubman  eventually reached $40,000 (Scruggs).

Harriet Tubman was still quite active in other ways after her work with the UGRR.  In 1858, Tubman went to Boston to give her first speech at an anti-slavery society meeting.  After that speech, she was in great demand to speak at other anti-slavery meetings (Haskins).  Soon after, Tubman became a vivacious participant in the women's rights movement.  Later, during the Civil War (1861-1865), Tubman served as a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army in South Carolina.  During a military campaign, she also helped free over 750 slaves (Scruggs).  Harriet Tubman was nothing short of remarkable.

The UGRR successfully and efficiently moved thousands of slaves northward. It has been estimated that the South lost about 100,000 slaves between the years 1810 and 1850 (Underground Railroad).  Several Southerners were angered by the UGRR and greatly contributed to the animosity between Northern and Southern U.S.A. that resulted in the Civil War (Donald). 

Coded slave songs originated in the churches of African-American slaves.  Slaves from rural areas stayed after regular worship services for singing and dancing, usually in church or a plantation "praise house," that is, until slaveholders wouldn't allow dancing or playing drums, practices that were customary in Africa (History).  They would have meetings where thousands of slaves got together to sing and listen to preachers for hours.  Hymns and Psalms were sung during church services and some of them were changed into songs of a typical African-American style (ibid).  Later, slaves were allowed to sing while they worked.  If it was apparent that the slaves were not opposing their owners, they could even sing "quiet" songs.  These were used to express personal emotions and could be sung by an individual or a group of slaves (ibid).  These songs sprouted into the coded slave songs used during the time of the UGRR.

Coded slave songs gave fugitives insight on what they would face through the UGRR and how to reach the North safely.  Slave songs were not written down when they were creaded, but passed on by word of mouth.  This means that the original lyrics and melody may not be what is heard today and there is no way to know what has been changed (Coded Slave Songs).  There is still enough evidence, however, to say that they were originally about escaping (ibid).

Slaves had to know how to interpret the coded songs correctly in order to get to the North without getting lost or injured.  One of the most used and most popular songs was "Wade in the Water," which provided escape instructions in the lyrics.  The title of the song is actually an instruction to keep bloodhounds from scenting their tracks (ibid).  The most famous slave song was "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which not only contained hidden instructions, but also conveyed a coded and detailed map of how to reach Canada.  The Drinking Gourd referred to the consellation known as the Big Dipper.  The Big Dipper is practically touching the North Star and so the slaves knew they were heading north if they followed it (ibid).  The lyrics, "When the sun comes back" instructed fugitives to travel in the spring.  The first river in the song that "ends between two hills" referred to the Tombigbee River in Mississippi.  Next in the song was the Tennessee River.  The "great big river," meant the Ohio River (Haskins).

Many slave songs mention the Jordan River.  The Jordan River in slave spirituals refers to a river that needs to be crossed in order to enter the promised land (ibid).  The Jordan was usually the Ohio River.  The promised land referred to Canada where slavery was nonexistent (ibid).  Other Negro spirituals, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "The Gospel Train," were about the UGRR and what slaves were supposed to do on their way to freedom (History).

During the UGRR, many important events occurred.  In 1831, Tice Davids escaped his master in Kentucky, ending up in Ohio, free from slavery.  This is when the term "Underground Railroad" first appeared (Haskins).  Also, during the 1840s, several states in Northern U.S.A. passed Personal Liberty Laws taht stopped state authorities from recapturing fugitive slaves (ibid).

The greatest amount of fugitive activity occurred in the 1850s.  In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, became President.  In December of the same year, South Carolina seceded from teh Union and six other states followed (ibid).  In 1862, President Lincoln passed the Emanicipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in the Confederacy as of the first of January 1863.  Lastly, in December of 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery completely (ibid).

The UGRR was a way for slaves to escape the racism and prejudice they faced in the early- to mid-1800s.  Also, Hariet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the UGRR, helped many slaves to freedom.  It has been shown that slave songs not only displayed personal feelings, but contained coded messages and directions to get them through the UGRR as well.  Coded slave songs were necessary to slaves in their journey to freedom.

Works Cited

"Coded Slave Songs." (www.localdial.com). 18 May 2005. <http://www.localdial.com/users/jsyedu133/Soulreview/Understandingpages/coded.htm>.

Donald, David Herbert.  "Underground Railroad." World Book Online Reference Center. 2005. World Book, Inc. 23 May 2005.  <http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wb/Article?id=ar574420>.

Haskins, Jim. Get on Board: The Story of the Underground Railroad.  Scholastic Inc.: New York. 1993.

"History." (www.negrospirituals.com). 23 May 2005. <http://www.negrospirituals.com/history.htm>.

"Race-based Legislation in the North 1807-1850." (www.pbs.org). 23 May 2005. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2957.html>.

Scruggs, Otey M.  "Tubman, Harriet." World Book Online Reference Center.  2005.  World Book, Inc. 23 May 2005. <http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wb/Article?id=ar569550>.

"The Underground Railroad 1780-1862." (www.pbs.org).  23 May 2005. <http://www.pbs.og/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2944.html>.

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Comments (2)
Ranked #80 in History

I used to live in a small western New York State town that had a house part of the Underground Railroad. The local school used to take tours through this privately-owned brick home. In the basement used to be a tunnel that extended all the way to the Genesee River, but when I toured it back in the last 70s part of the tunnel had collapsed and the school no longer permitted the class to travel via the tunnel (insurance, safety reasons.)

Ranked #1 in History

This was a brilliant discussion of a subject I'm deeply interested in. The text is well-written and reveals a wealth of research. Follow The Drinking Gourd is a great slave song, along with Oh, What A Beautiful City.

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