Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad
Secrets: Signs and Symbols
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Language of the Underground Railroad

Ever since the first African slaves came to this country in the 1600s, there were many attempts to escape to freedom. However, they didn’t have a phrase for this effort until around 1830. America’s first railroads began to run that year. People who helped organize these escapes began to think of their work in terms of a railroad. They added “underground” because their work was underground, or very secretive.

A lot of secret codes on the underground railroad came from words and phrases associated with real railroads Because of this connection, they often used the same kinds of words to talk about their work as those on the railroad did. These words became a kind of code for them. They could use them in everyday conversation and people would think they were talking about the railroad, not runaway slaves.

They called the people who helped slaves escape “conductors,” like the people who ran the trains. Harriet Tubman was a famous conductor on the Underground Railroad.

The safe places where escaping slaves could hide were called “stations,” just like the stations on a railroad. The “station master” was a person in charge of that hiding place, just as the station master was in charge of a railroad station.

The people who were traveling were sometimes called “passengers,” just as they would be on a regular train. At other times, they were referred to as “baggage.”



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