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Finding Ancestors in the Anti-Slavery Movement and Underground Railroad

Things to Keep in Mind

These are things to keep in mind when looking for your ancestors in anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activity:

When and Who

Anti-slavery activity in North America has existed for as long as there has been slavery. Due to threats of violent reprisal, and legal penalties including fines and imprisonment, we may never be able to identify everyone who participated, or all the specifics of how they took part.

There was great diversity in the who of anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activity. Enslaved persons battled slavery on behalf of themselves, their families, and their communities, often in cooperation with free people of color. Among those less vulnerable to enslavement, for some their activity against slavery arose not only from a commitment to equal human rights but to equal social, civil, and political rights for all Americans as well. But not always. Some of the sharpest criticisms of slavery in the U.S. came from slaveholders who were determined to remain slaveholders. Other opponents of slavery in the “free North” endorsed laws forbidding free people of color to settle in their towns.

Some who took action against slavery were proud to have their names published in connection with their activism, others did not want even their family or neighbors to know, and kept their involvement secret for decades after the Civil War.

Some anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activity took place in all-White contexts, some in all-Black contexts, and some in interracial contexts.

What It Involved

There were a great many ways to participate in anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activity. They included giving anti-slavery lectures; soliciting subscriptions to and writing articles for anti-slavery newspapers; signing or circulating petitions; making crafts to sell at fundraising fairs; or boycotting goods made by enslaved labor. Helpers on the Underground Railroad fed conductors and passengers; they escorted or drove them from place to place using various forms of transportation. They hid escapees; they found other safe places among their own family or friends to send escapees. Some provided legal representation for escapees and helpers who got caught and faced forcible return or imprisonment. Others lobbied elected officials. And some took direct action, helping to forcibly rescue escapees who had been caught. Still others created anti-slavery art, music, poems, stories, catechisms and other teaching tools, tracts and treatises, posters, books and other records.

What It Was Called

Anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. were called Abolition or Manumission or Emancipation or Anti-Slavery societies. Members of Colonization Societies sought to end slavery but also to promote Black Americans’ emigration (voluntary or involuntary) to various destinations outside the US, including what became Liberia in Africa.

One kind of organization to help escapees from slavery was called a Vigilance Committee (that term was used very differently in Gold Rush California). However, help also came from cultural, literary, and mutual aid societies, or groups organized for other purposes, including churches; some of these created vaguely-named committees for assisting escapees.

The effort to boycott products made with enslaved labor was called the Free Produce Movement.

Fundraising events were variously called Fairs, Bazaars, or Subscription Anniversaries.

Where It Happened

Anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activity took place everywhere in the United States there was unfree labor.

Where to Look

The collections of the Library of Congress contain a wide variety of materials on all of these topics, including newspapers, manuscript materials, books, pamphlets, and more. Many primary source materials from the Library's collections have been digitized and are described in and linked to from this guide. In addition, related resources available from the Library and from external websites are included.