Episode 059: Eric Foner, The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Gateway to Freedom

Between the 1830s and 1860s, a clandestine communications and transportation network called the “Underground Railroad” helped thousands of slaves escape to freedom.

Today, we investigate this secret network with Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Episode Summary

Eric FonerIn this episode, we investigate the Underground Railroad with Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

During our exploration, Eric reveals what the Underground Railroad was and how it function; How slaves escaped slavery and what their escape experiences were like; And, what life was like for slaves who reached and settled in free states.

What You’ll Discover

    • An overview of the Underground Railroad and how it functioned
    • Who participated in the secret communications and transportation network
    • Approximation of how many slaves escaped to freedom using the network
    • When Underground Railroad networks formed
    • The New York Vigilance Society
    • What American society looked like during the 1830s and 1840s
    • Why the Underground Railroad operated as a clandestine network
    • David Ruggles and the Underground Railroad in New York City
    • The primary sources Eric used to research his book
    • Slave escape experiences
    • Consequences for “conductors” caught helping slaves escape to freedom
    • Consequences for slaves caught trying to escape
    • Where fugitive slaves settled
    • What escaped slaves did for work when they reached free states or Canada
    • The threat slave catchers posed to escaped or fugitive slaves
    • Protections offered by communities where escaped slaves settled
    • Harriet Tubman and her activities with the Underground Railroad
    • The Underground Railroad’s contributions to the causes of the Civil War
    • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
    • Historic sites you can visit
Underground Railroad Map
Compiled from “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Willbur H. Siebert Wilbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898


Links to People, Places, and Publications

Eric Foner
Eric’s website
Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery
Sydney Howard Gay’s “Record of Fugitives” Digital Source

Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

In your opinion what might have happened if men and women in New York City had not participated in the Underground Railroad? What would have happened to the Underground Railroad network without a hub in New York City?

Questions, Comments, Suggestions

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