The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad. It was a network of people, both black and white, who helped enslaved people, people forced to perform labor and services against their will, escape from their enslavers, people who enslave another person. This network was called “Underground” because it was top secret, and “Railroad” because terms like “conductor” and “depot” were used as codes for helpers and safe places.
People who escape slavery were considered fugitives, because it was against the law to escape. Many fugitives went to the northern United States and Canada where they could be free. Many of the fugitives that came to Michigan were enslaved in Kentucky.
Escaping was dangerous. Fugitives were determined, cautious, and courageous. They knew that the punishment was harsh if they were caught. Many fugitives that were caught were whipped, beaten or even made to wear chains.
Traveling north was also very dangerous. Fugitives had to be careful not to be noticed, so many wore disguises. They traveled mostly by foot, but sometimes by horse, train or even fancy carriages. Conductors on the Underground Railroad helped them find routes and ways to escape to the north.
Many towns in southern Michigan were part of the Underground Railroad. Conductors hid fugitives in their homes and barns during the day. The hiding places were called depots. At night, fugitives would go to a depot in the next town. Some of the fugitives went to Canada. Some chose to stay in Michigan.
Fugitives who made it to the north often worked to help other enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad.