The history of slavery in America is complicated and difficult to understand. In 1619, the first Africans were brought to what would become the United States. Whether they were slaves or indentured servants, fulfilling a contract of limited years, is unknown. In 1641, Massachusetts was the first American colony to legalize slavery. By 1700, lifelong slavery for blacks had become part of colonial law.
The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) with Britain was fought for the freedom of these colonies. By 1808, when Congress outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa to America, the labor of enslaved Africans had become essential to the new nation's economy. In 1830, over two million enslaved people worked in the United States.
During the nineteenth century, the expansion of the nation led to political debates about whether slavery would be legal in new states or not. At issue was not only slavery itself, but also the power granted to slaveholding states by the United States Constitution. These states could count a slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of Congressional representation and electoral votes.
Initially fought to preserve the unity of the nation and the authority of the federal government, the Civil War (1861-1865) became a war to abolish slavery. In 1865, victory for the northern states and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ended legal slavery in America, but not racial inequality.
The issue of slavery divided the American people in many ways. Of those people who supported the institution, not all agreed with the forming of the Confederate States of America, which led to the Civil War. Of those people opposed to slavery, not all agreed on how the institution should be abolished.
Abolitionists were never a popular or unified group in the United States. Their meetings were disrupted, and their writings were burned. As individuals, they fought to end slavery for different reasons. Within organizations, they disagreed on the effectiveness of laws and moral persuasion to help end slavery. They argued over whether women's rights should be connected to equal rights. And they could not agree on whether freed slaves should become American citizens or be required to live in colonies in Africa.
The four stories in this exhibit are told within this context of division and disagreement. They are stories of real people seeking and defining freedom for themselves and others. To explore these stories is to learn about the nation's past and about how, and why, that past has been preserved.
The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It was not completely secret nor was it nationally organized. It was a phrase used to describe the flight of enslaved people to freedom. It encompassed where they stayed and what help, if any, they received from black and white abolitionists. Although slaves had always escaped, the term "Underground Railroad" could not have any meaning until railroads were started in the 1830s.