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"Fugitive Slave"

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The escape of slaves from their bondage became a source of pleasure to antislavery northerners in the years after the 1830s. Although many northerners did not particularly like slaves, nor did they want African-Americans to remain in their communities, their distaste for the slave system of the south led them to celebrate successful escapes. Of course others were not racist but they tended to be in the minority. When slaves escaped they used the North Star (Polaris) as their guide since their closest safe destination was Canada. (Another group did seek to escape to Mexico which also had abolished slavery entirely.) It is difficult to quantify how many slaves successfully escaped but it certainly was in the tens of thousands in the decade before the Civil War. (During the war many thousands more would escape with the proximity of U.S. troops.) Some escaped slaves used the Underground Railway, a loosely linked network of safe homes and sympathetic persons throughout the north. Although the effectiveness and capacity of the "railroad" has been wildly overestimated and romanticized, nonetheless maybe ten thousand slaves were helped to freedom. For example, in Philadelphia William Still, the African-American chairman of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, kept records on the approximately 5,000 slaves who passed through that city from 1852 to 1857. In Massachusetts many households opened their doors to escaped slaves in increasing numbers through the 1850s. One area particularly sympathetic to escaping slaves was Franklin County where a number of underground railway sites have been documented.


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