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How the Underground Railroad got its name

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped enslaved people escape from southern slave states to free states in the North, is most closely associated with Harriet Tubman. Tubman escaped slavery in Maryland but returned again and again, risking her own freedom to help free others, including members of her own family. But for every story like Harriet Tubman's, there are countless others that we don't know, including how the Underground Railroad got its name. Journalist Scott Shane found the answer to that question when he was researching the life of Thomas Smallwood, a little-known activist who played a key role in abolition. Shane's book "Flee North: A Forgotten Hero And The Fight For Freedom In Slavery's Borderland" details Smallwood's life, writings for an abolitionist newspaper in Albany and his efforts with the Underground Railroad.

SCOTT SHANE: Thomas Smallwood is an amazing guy who very few people know about. He was born into slavery in 1801 just outside D.C. He purchased his freedom by the age of 30. He became a shoemaker in southeast Washington. And basically he began, with the help of a white sidekick named Charles Torrey, to organize escapes from slavery. And they decided they would not try in ones and twos and threes, but they would try to help people escape by the wagonload. So they would load 10, 15, 20 people into a wagon and drive them North or send them North.

SUMMERS: I'm curious. In all of your research, as you were learning about the story of Thomas Smallwood, how were you able to know for certain - or certain as one could be - that this is the place and the person with whom this idea of the name the Underground Railroad - that this is where it comes from?

SHANE: When I found Smallwood talking about the Underground Railroad as this kind of mythical transport system by which people were supposedly escaping slavery, I immediately went, like anybody else would, to Wikipedia. I found that there were some kind of folklore theories about where that phrase came from, but none of them held up to much scrutiny, and scholars really had not accepted any of them. And so therefore, it was a bit of a historical mystery as to where this came from.

So then I looked into the big, digitized databases that now exist of 19th century newspapers and just put in that phrase, Underground Railroad, and was amazed to find that all of the early uses of Underground Railroad come from Smallwood's dispatches and from pieces by his buddy Charles Torrey, who had become editor of that paper in Albany. So he picks up this phrase, the Underground Railroad, and he starts using it in his newspaper dispatches essentially to beat up on the slaveholders and the slave catchers. It's one more way that he can mock them. So he starts riffing on it. And he appoints himself the general agent of all the branches of the national Underground Railroad. And so he has a lot of fun with this basically as one more way of sticking it to the slaveholders who are his enemies. But within a year or two, it gets picked up by other newspapers, and it gradually becomes a kind of way of referring to the escapes from slavery, especially those aided by folks in a network kind of up the line to the North.

SUMMERS: You know, it really strikes me listening to you describe the way that Thomas Smallwood is writing about the enslaved and their owners, this mockery. Even though he's writing under a pseudonym, it seems like there's a great deal of risk inherent here with what he's doing. Is that how you see it?

SHANE: Absolutely. I mean, on top of sending these things off to the Albany paper, he asked the editors in Albany to send a copy of any newspaper that named a slaveholder to that slaveholder. These are people in D.C., Maryland, to some degree Virginia. And so these folks are sort of unsuspecting. They get this copy of a paper from Albany, N.Y. They open it up, and here they are being mocked publicly. And sometimes their brutality is exposed. And he insists that these newspapers be sent to the slaveholders. So it definitely got people riled up. I think one thing you can say is that in some ways, his best disguise is the literary quality of these newspaper dispatches. I don't think anyone initially was - who was stung by these newspaper pieces was thinking that this Black shoemaker was their author.

SUMMERS: Were there any preconceived notions about the Underground Railroad that you were hoping to either interrogate or correct in your work?

SHANE: I think in our time, the Underground Railroad has become a polite way, a kind of kinder, gentler way of talking about the horrors of slavery, the crime of slavery. And in part, that's because it's a story of liberation, it's basically a good news story and also, I think, because it provides a role for warm-hearted white people. And I guess going back and learning the story of Smallwood and - in sort of some of the early years, you realize that this, first of all, was not at all institutionalized, not at all organized. This was a small number of activists taking grave risks to help people to freedom and a very, very dangerous thing and something that was seen by most abolitionists at the time as too dangerous. And so people like Thomas Smallwood were actually in the small minority even of abolitionists who would take the risks to make this - these kinds of escapes happen.

SUMMERS: So many of us who grew up in this country were educated about slavery, about the Underground Railroad. But Thomas Smallwood's name is not one that comes up in that education. Why do you think that his name and this story that you've brought us is one that seems to be largely forgotten by history?

SHANE: You know, I think it's a combination of things. Thomas Smallwood, like the people he was sending North, eventually has to make his own very daring escape. And he ends up in Canada as well. Basically, his career as a writer ends with the exception of a short memoir that he writes in 1851. But there's also one other element which is somewhat darker, which is Charles Torrey, his partner in getting the escapes going, never credited Smallwood, even in private correspondence, with, really, what was the far more important role in beginning to organize these escapes. Other writers at the time who would have been aware of Smallwood's role also did not credit him. And I think there was probably an element of racism in that. And so Smallwood just never gets credit. So his writings get kind of cast to the winds, and he's busy earning a living. And, you know, he just sort of - his story falls by the wayside.

SUMMERS: Scott Shane is the author of the book "Flee North: A Forgotten Hero And The Fight For Freedom In Slavery's Borderland." Scott, thank you so much for joining us.

SHANE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS BRITELL'S "WHEN A LADY ENTERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.