This family had always told stories about how their home harbored a fascinating piece of American history. And in January 2014 they found out that it wasn’t all fiction. In fact, while renovating the basement of their house to improve its energy efficiency, they discovered a concealed opening in the foundation stones. And beyond it was a secret room…
Photos of the extraordinary discovery were published on the image-sharing website imgur by a user who goes by the name of “IvebeentoYungay.” He wrote, “The room was found in the basement of the house I grew up in, which was completed in 1849. It is 25 miles south of the Canadian border.”
In fact, this family home had once connected people and places in very distant lands. And the room – which lay behind a brick wall hidden by a set of cylindrical water softeners – concealed a special history very much grounded in the turbulence of 19th-century American politics.
According to IvebeentoYungay, his family had long been told stories about a “hiding spot” under the fireplace. “[But] instead of tearing up the living room floor,” he said. “They tried to find it from the basement.” However, the hiding spot had to be extremely well-concealed in order to escape the attention of federal agents and bounty hunters.
Indeed, the room was hidden in the foundations of the house behind 32 inches of stone. But with the help of a small step-ladder, IvebeentoYungay was able to climb up to the opening and peer inside. And what he saw finally confirmed the rumors: his family home had once been part of a clandestine smuggling network.
However, this particular smuggling ring did not handle illegal goods or stolen commodities. And the people operating it weren’t gangsters. In fact, the enterprise drew together activists and philanthropists from a wide range of backgrounds and religious faiths, including Quakers, Presbyterians and Wesleyans.
But most of all, the network comprised African-American activists. And its aim? To provide escaped slaves passage to free states via a system of safe houses. The network was known as the “Underground Railroad” because its operators used coded “railroad” terminology to communicate with each other.
For example, escapees were known as “passengers” who organized their passage through “agents.” Hiding rooms, such as the one that IvebeentYungay discovered in his basement, were known as “stations.” The guides who led escapees across the country were known as “conductors.” And the homeowners who harbored escapees were called “station masters.”
Reaching its peak in the late 1850s, the Underground Railroad may have assisted as many as 100,000 slaves to freedom. At least one-third of them went to British North America, which was also nicknamed “Heaven” or the “Promised Land” but goes by the name of Canada today. This was the final stop on the “Gospel Train.”
However, there wasn’t much to see inside this particular “station” now, except for a broken step and some stones. But the family did locate what appeared to be an extremely rusty bayonet on one of the walls. Was this intended to be used in self-defense? And if so, had it ever been deployed against snooping slave catchers?
Technically, under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, free states were legally bound to assist in the recapture of runaway slaves. In practice, however, the law was ignored. All that changed with the Compromise of 1850, which strictly compelled free states to assist slave catchers, who were also granted wide-reaching immunity.
If arrested, suspected slaves had no right to representation in the courtroom. Moreover, judges were paid $10 to rule against them, compared to $5 to rule in their favor. And worst of all, the kidnapping of free blacks and children was rife, as money could be made from selling them on into slavery, and there were few institutional safeguards to protect them.
However, for those who could find it, the Underground Railroad offered the promise of freedom. Details of safe routes and trustworthy contacts were transmitted by word of mouth. But in order to protect against infiltration, no single operator ever knew the entire workings of the operation, just the part pertaining to their own geographic area.
Still, escaping from the plantation itself was often the hardest part of the getaway. Some conductors even risked their lives penetrating the grounds by pretending to be slaves themselves. The risks were huge, of course – but once inside, they were able to recruit potential escapees and guide them onwards to the “Promised Land.”
Led by a conductor, the fugitives would journey at night, usually in clusters of one to three people. They covered around 10 to 20 miles of ground each day, mostly on foot or by mule. This dangerous trek was broken with stops at designated houses, churches, barns and other safe spots. And messengers were deployed at each “station” to inform the next one that new “passengers” were coming.
Undoubtedly, however, the real heroes of the Underground Railroad were African Americans. Among them, Harriet Tubman returned to the South no less than 19 times. Neither she nor any of her passengers were ever captured by the slave-catchers. And her success in freeing hundreds of slaves earned her the title, “Moses of Her People.”
Meanwhile, an African-American businessman and abolitionist called William Still helped some 800 slaves to escape. He offered refuge to some of them at his house in Philadelphia, where he was able to document their fascinating biographies. Indeed, in 1872 he published these in a book entitled The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts.
And of the many white people who contributed the cause, John Fairfield stands out in particular. He was the son of a slave-holding family in Virginia, and his most daring rescue operations involved him working undercover to earn the trust of plantation communities. Indeed, on one occasion he posed as an undertaker and spirited away 28 slaves during a funeral procession.
The secret room that IvebeentoYungay discovered in his family home was likely to have been one of the ultimate stops on the Underground Railroad. Located just 25 miles from the border with Canada, it would have accommodated passengers on their final leg to freedom.
However, its true value lies in its connection to wider events in American history. After all, the conditions that caused the Underground Railroad to thrive are the same conditions that supplied the grounds for America’s civil war. As such, it is a vital piece of history. And fortunately, the Underground Railroad is now gaining the popular attention it deserves.