In 1780, the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed in the State of Pennsylvania. All children born of slavery after the passage of the act were to be freed when they reached the age of twenty-eight. Massachusetts followed three years later with its own law, with Connecticut passing their abolition law a year after that. Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey had all followed suit by 1786. In 1808, the United States took another step towards ending slavery by banning the importation of Africans into the United States for sale as slaves.
The gradual abolition of slavery in the North worried Southerners, who saw it as a threat to their own way of life. Northerners saw it as progress and became adamant that slavery must be abolished completely. The tension on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line was growing.
Slavery became such a sensitive issue that in the early part of the nineteenth century that it was deemed an improper term. At that time, the word ‘peculiar’ was defined as a reference to something distinctive and associated with a particular place or person, and so the expression ‘peculiar institution’ took the place of the term ‘slavery’ for a time, especially in legislative bodies where the issue was becoming a hot topic.
With the abolition of slavery quickly spreading in the North, concern for the preservation of the institution that supported their way of life became of major concern to Southern slaveholders. While the North sought to abolish an abomination, the South sought to retain their economic foundation. A runaway slave no longer had to flee all the way to Canada to escape his owners. When a Northern state outlawed slavery, fugitives saw it as a place where they might – and did – find refuge and freedom. Anti-slavery-minded citizens in free states, white and black alike, gladly offered assistance to runaway slaves.
And so the Underground Railroad was born. It was not a real railroad, nor was it an organized effort on the part of people who opposed slavery. In most cases, those who participated never knew the identity of others who provided sanctuary or the location of the safe houses. But word spread of the safest routes a runaway should take, places where food and shelter might be found, and where people were sympathetic to the plight of the slave. Terms used by the railroad became the code used to pass messages. People who came to guide fugitives to a safe haven were called conductors, safe havens were known as stations, and those who provided them were stationmasters. A package or cargo referred to the fugitives.
Many of the African-American spirituals that began in the fields of the South were more than a means of getting through a hard day of labour. Often they reflected life as a slave, but they also were used to pass messages. References to ‘the promised land’ meant the free states in the North. The day before she ran away, the famous Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman, was heard singing such a song.
Oral tradition has handed down stories of how quilts were used by participants in the Underground Railroad to pass messages. Certain patterns are believed to have been used as code. The Monkey Wrench pattern was a signal to gather tools and whatever was needed in preparation to escape. If the Wagon Wheel pattern appeared, it meant to pack up. The Tumbling Boxes pattern meant that everything and everyone was ready to go. Only one quilt at a time would appear in a window, on a fence or elsewhere, as if spread outside to air. Seven other patterns passed messages, gave directions or warned of danger.
Word spread of the Underground Railroad and of the people in both the North and the South who were willing to risk fines, imprisonment and, for African-Americans, execution. Slaveholders became more worried and more insistent that their property rights be enforced. They demanded more legislation to protect their position, while the North wanted the nonexistent rights of slaves attended to. The effort to maintain a balance between the two set off a chain reaction of events that would lead to the end of slavery. But not before the country had been ripped apart by a war that was blamed on the peculiar institution.