Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad
Secrets: Signs and Symbols
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When Africans first came to this country, they carried with them a rich culture that included, among other things, a tradition of singing. Songs could serve many purposes. They could provide rhythm for repetitive chores, such as working in the fields. Songs could also celebrate important events, helping people remember their history if they did not have a written language. Songs could also express emotions, in the same way that poetry and drama do.

For Africans who wanted to escape slavery, songs had another important purpose as well. They could be used to communicate. Their songs, which are sometimes called spirituals, were passed from one group to another — and along with the songs came the code.

For example, many of these slave songs talked about “going home” or “being bound for the land of Canaan.” If you just heard the song, you might think the people were singing about dying and going to heaven. However, the people who sang were very clever. They were actually singing about going north to Canada and freedom.

In his writing, Frederick Douglass talks about this. He used this song as an example:

I thought I heard them say,
There were lions on the way.
I don't expect to stay
Much longer here.

Run to Jesus — face the danger—
I don’t expect to stay
Much longer here.

Douglass knew that people who heard that song might think that the person who was singing it was thinking about dying and going to a final reward. But, what they were really singing about was escaping slavery — traveling a dangerous route. Douglass knew what other slaves knew: the lions weren’t really lions, but dangers on the road to freedom, and that the singer was probably using the song to alert others that he or she was planning to escape.

Songs signaled many things... »

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