Opinion

How the Underground Railroad Got Its Name

Thomas Smallwood was a busy man in the summer of 1842. Born into slavery outside Washington, D.C., in 1801, he had largely educated himself and bought his own freedom 11 years before. By day, he ran a shoemaking business from the little house he shared with his wife and four children a short walk from the U.S. Capitol. By night, he was organizing daring, dangerous escapes from slavery — not by ones and twos but by the wagonload — from Washington, Baltimore and the surrounding counties.

Yet somehow he found time every week or two to write a new dispatch for an abolitionist newspaper in Albany, N.Y., a stop for many of those he was sending north. Written at considerable risk, his letters mercilessly mocked enslavers and celebrated those fleeing from them, using everyone’s real names — except for his own, which he hid behind a pseudonym. And one day early that August he took up his pen and made literary history, becoming the first to use a phrase that would resound through the subsequent decades of slavery and to the present day: underground railroad.

In researching a book about Mr. Smallwood, likely the most fascinating and important African American activist and writer you’ve never heard of, I stumbled upon the solution to an old historical mystery: Where did the Underground Railroad get its name? The answer: from Mr. Smallwood’s newspaper dispatches, overlooked until recently in aging newsprint stacked in a Boston Public Library warehouse. As I read through these extraordinary letters, a rare real-time account of escapes and a lost masterpiece of satire, I came across the first use of “underground railroad” from the Aug. 10, 1842, edition of Tocsin of Liberty, an abolitionist newspaper published in Albany.

Addressing in his usual antic style a Washington slaveholder whose “walking property walked off,” as he once put it, Mr. Smallwood told the man, “It was your cruelty to him, that made him disappear by that same ‘under ground rail-road’ or ‘steam balloon,’ about which one of your city constables was swearing so bitterly a few weeks ago, when complaining that the ‘d—-d rascals’ got off so, and that no trace of them could be found!”

In a later dispatch, Mr. Smallwood elaborated: The outburst had come from a notorious Baltimore police constable named John Zell, who often collected the rewards paid by slaveholders for returning runaways. There were, of course, no actual underground railroads at the time; Mr. Zell was referring sarcastically to a nonexistent, futuristic means of travel, just as we might quip that a person who suddenly vanished must have been teleported to another city or kidnapped by aliens.

The policeman’s bitter jest would soon have been forgotten — except that Mr. Smallwood seized on it as a backhanded compliment to him and those he was helping to flee north. He began riffing in his columns on this mythical transport system supposedly speeding people out of the clutches of the slaveholders, wielding the phrase with savage mockery. He advised slaveholders bewildered by the disappearance of their enslaved workers to apply at the “office of the underground railroad” in Washington for information on their lost property. He appointed himself “general agent of all the branches of the National Underground Railroad.”

When I first discovered these passages, I hurried to learn what historians had written about the origin of the name. There were multiple accounts, but scholars had generally rejected them as dubious folklore, for good reason. One version had a slaveholder exclaiming in 1831 that his enslaved man must have fled from Kentucky to Ohio “on an underground road,” but the story was first recorded in print decades later. Another came from an 1879 book, “Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad,” which traced the phrase to a Washington newspaper in 1839 — but the author admitted that some 40 years later, he was recounting the article “as closely as I can from memory.” None of the theories mentioned Mr. Smallwood.

The front page of the Tocsin of Liberty published on Aug. 10, 1842.

The advent in recent years of massive collections of digitized American newspapers made it possible to resolve this old puzzle. All the earliest references in print to “underground railroad” come from Mr. Smallwood and his younger, white sidekick, Charles Torrey, who moved to Albany to become editor of Tocsin of Liberty in late 1842 and sometimes echoed Mr. Smallwood’s joke. Within a year or two, however, “underground railroad” had been picked up by other writers around the country, who at first mimicked Mr. Smallwood’s mocking tone but soon began to use the phrase as a handy generic term for escapes from slavery.

In the 181 years since Mr. Smallwood’s introduction of the term, the Underground Railroad has become a thrilling chapter of American history, taught even in elementary school, the subject of countless novels, plays and movies. If Mr. Smallwood had used the term in his ironic metaphor, as a verbal “lash” against slaveholders and slave catchers, it would soon lose its sting. The story of the Underground Railroad would give Americans, white and Black, a kinder, gentler way to talk about the violent criminal enterprise of human slavery, because some white people had worked with Black people helping refugees from slavery flee north.

As the decades passed, Mr. Smallwood’s scathing joke grew into an American cultural phenomenon, a legend that sometimes slipped the limits of historical fact. The drama of the Underground Railroad, with its elaborate argot of stations and conductors, came to obscure the likelihood that most people who escaped bondage liberated themselves without much help. And the role of African Americans in organizing escapes was at times overshadowed by attention paid to white allies. My research indicates that Mr. Torrey has long been given credit for escapes Mr. Smallwood organized without him.

The popular attention paid to the Underground Railroad stands in contrast to decades of virtual silence about a related, opposite phenomenon: the domestic slave trade, which acted as an engine driving the Underground Railroad. Mr. Smallwood and Mr. Torrey were often approached by people desperate to avoid the dire fate of being sold south, away from home and family. In the decades after the African slave trade was banned in 1808, some one million enslaved people were forcibly transported from the Upper South to the cotton and sugar plantations of the Deep South. To this day, despite several excellent books on the subject, most Americans remain unaware of the nature and dimensions of the domestic slave trade, which offers no heartwarming stories of white heroes.

None of this subsequent cultural history would have surprised Mr. Smallwood, who himself escaped to Toronto in 1843, as the police closed in, and started a business manufacturing saws. Life had taught him to keep his expectations of the U.S. government and its white citizens low; he wrote in his 1851 memoir, with some prescience, that he believed “the United States will never voluntarily grant the African race among them freedom.”

But his most memorable writing had been the madcap letters of the 1840s, in which the Underground Railroad was only one of Mr. Smallwood’s many jokes at the expense of those who believed they should own other human beings. “A shrewd slave,” he wrote, “has wit enough at any time to get round a lazy, mole-eyed slaveholder.” In his topsy-turvy framing, the enslavers were a dim race of pampered, morally bankrupt fools; the enslaved were noble and clever, to be celebrated especially for their wit.

“The poor manstealers and their watchdogs are greatly at a loss to know how their victims escape,” Mr. Smallwood wrote at the peak of his own clandestine operation sending people north. “At times they watch the Rail Road, with eagle eyes. … At other times they reckon their victims escape in coaches or wagons. Then they imagine they go by water, which is often the case. All this shows that they would give a plum to know where the under-ground Rail Road begins!”

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Times from 2004 to 2019, is the author of the forthcoming book “Flee North: A Forgotten Hero and the Fight for Freedom in Slavery’s Borderland.”

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