Underground Railroad


With a deep abolitionist history and large and vibrant free Black population, Philadelphia and the surrounding region played a prominent role in the famed Underground Railroad. The loosely connected organization of white and Black people helped hide and guide enslaved people as they sought freedom in the North and Canada.

According to one of the earliest accounts, written by Robert Smedley in 1883, slaveholders began to use the term “Underground Railroad” in the late 1780s to describe clandestine efforts in the Columbia, Pennsylvania, area to help fugitives escape slavery. Columbia grew out of the small settlement of Wright’s Ferry, which was founded by Quakers and other white people who opposed slavery. Soon after its founding, the town gained a reputation for protecting fugitives and allowing free Black settlement.

Built in 1708, the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in conjunction with Abolition Hall on the opposite side of Germantown Pike. (Library of Congress)

Before long a system of escape routes led fugitives north from the Chesapeake toward Havre de Grace, Maryland, and across the Susquehanna River to Lancaster and Chester Counties. Several routes developed in south central and southeastern Pennsylvania and in southwestern New Jersey, regions with strong Quaker abolitionist networks and vibrant free Black communities that helped fugitives make their way farther north. Those traveling through New Jersey followed a route that later became the path of the New Jersey Turnpike. The southeastern Pennsylvania route shared the common intended destination of Phoenixville, where fugitives hoped to reach the home of Elijah Pennypacker (1804-88), who helped them on to Philadelphia, Norristown, Quakertown, Reading, and other stations. This network of assistance gained the name “Underground Railroad” around 1804, and historian Larry Gara has estimated that as many as one thousand enslaved people a year joined the slow but steady traffic by the mid to late 1840s.

Tense Borders

A black and white photograph of a two-story stone home with a chimney; the first story is white washed.
The Christiana “riot” took place at the home of William Parker, a free Black man who helped organize a mutual protection society for the area’s Black population. When Edward Gorsuch and his posse arrived at Parker’s home, they were met by at least fifty men who intended to protect the escaped slaves. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

This activity led to tense interstate relations between border South states like Maryland and border North states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Well before the Civil War, conflicts that historian Stanley Harrold has labeled a “border war” over slavery took place in communities of southeastern Pennsylvania and southwestern New Jersey. Abolitionists put up armed resistance to slaveholders’ efforts to recapture slaves, in many cases rescuing the accused from courthouses and jailhouses. Two famous incidents, one at Swedesboro, New Jersey, in 1836 and one at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1847, led to considerable violence as fugitives and their allies fought hard to thwart the efforts of slave catchers. The rescuers in New Jersey succeeded in saving a Black family from a professional slave catcher from Philadelphia, but the group in Carlisle had mixed results and the situation ended in convictions for eleven rescuers. Perhaps the most famous of these rescue “riots” occurred in 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania, when a Maryland slaveholder was killed by Black men as they defended themselves against recapture. Despite the rising violence along the North/South border, escapes continued throughout the 1850s.

Historian Nilgun Okur has estimated that by the beginning of the Civil War nearly nine thousand fugitives made their way to Philadelphia, some passing through on the way to other destinations and others choosing to stay. In Philadelphia new arrivals found further assistance from the Vigilance Committee, led by prominent Black abolitionists like Robert Purvis (1810-98) in its early years and later by William Still (1821-1902). The group aided fugitives who reached Philadelphia by providing food, shelter, and clothing, sometimes in the form of disguises as they moved from one station to another.

This black and white portrait-style photograph shows William Still.
William Still (1821-1902), born in New Jersey, was a leading figure in the Vigilance Committee. (Wikimedia Commons)

A New Jersey native, Still began working for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1847, gradually advancing from custodian to clerk, then chair of the Vigilance Committee. His wife, Letitia (George) Still (1821-1906), played an important role by offering the Still home and by using her seamstress skills to sew the clothing and to raise money to help fund the operation. The Stills hosted a number of famous fugitives, including Jane Johnson (c.1814-72) and her sons, whom Still and fellow abolitionist Passmore Williamson (1822-95) dramatically rescued in 1855. In addition, Still received a number of now-famous fugitives in the Anti-Slavery Society office at 105 N. Fifth Street, including Henry “Box” Brown (c. 1816-97), who had himself shipped there from the South, and Still’s own brother Peter (1801-68).

Much of what historians know about these encounters comes from Still’s meticulous records and his resultant book, The Underground Railroad, published in 1872. According to his journal, preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, he helped 485 fugitives in the city between 1852 and 1857. Still’s work and records clearly illustrate the importance of the free Black community to the operation and success of the Underground Railroad.

Philadelphia’s Aid Network

Still was building on a long tradition of free Black volunteers aiding fugitives. When he moved to Philadelphia he joined the largest and wealthiest northern free Black community, one with a host of churches, organizations, and mutual aid societies, including Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. These institutions helped foster a strong leadership class among Black Americans who had helped make Philadelphia an epicenter of American abolition even before the American Revolution. Though Philadelphia and the surrounding region were plagued by the same racism and animosity toward blacks that permeated American society, the region was also home to a supportive community of Quakers and other whites sympathizers. They founded organizations such as the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to fight against bondage and give aid to free Black people. This interracial cooperation was essential to the success of the Underground Railroad.

A black and white lithograph of four black men being ambushed by a crowd of white men.
In the 1850s, Pennsylvanians were sometimes brought to court for helping and concealing fugitives from slavery, and accused fugitives faced hearings that could lead to a return to bondage. (Library of Congress)

The conductors were violating Fugitive Slave Laws passed by the federal government in 1793 and 1850. The 1850 law in particular made it difficult to help fugitives because it required federal authorities to hunt runaway slaves and bystanders to participate in their capture when called upon. As a result, those who aided fugitives faced severe criminal penalties of six months in jail and fines of $1,000 as well as the possibility of civil suits from slave owners.

The story of the Underground Railroad provides an important example of interracial unity in the fight for social justice that began in the colonial era and continues today. White and Black abolitionists worked together to help enslaved Americans gain their freedom, pushing the nation to reach for the ideals in the Declaration of Independence. Everyday citizens who served as guides and conductors along the railroad had come to realize that the U.S.’s racial caste system harmed all Americans, and they employed nonviolent direct action to fight against the injustice. Their example animated later efforts such as the modern civil rights movement and remains relevant in the twenty-first century.

Beverly C. Tomek is the author of Pennsylvania Hall: A ‘Legal Lynching’ in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Colonization and Its Discontents: Emancipation, Emigration, and Antislavery in Antebellum Pennsylvania (NYU Press, 2011). She earned a Ph.D. in history at the University of Houston and is associate professor of history and associate provost at the University of Houston-Victoria. (Author information current at time of publication.) 

Copyright 2018, Rutgers University


William Still

Wikimedia Commons

William Still (1821-1902), born in New Jersey, helped hundreds of fugitives in the Philadelphia area during the 1840s and 1850s. Still worked for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and ultimately chaired the Vigilance Committee, keeping meticulous records of each individual and family aided by the group's efforts. His wife, Letitia (George) Still (1821-1906), hosted many fugitives in the Still home, sewed clothing, and raised money for abolitionist causes.

Still's book The Underground Railroad was published in 1872 and serves as a benchmark for historical records of the time period. In March 2018, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to preserve the 19th-century rowhouse on S. Delhi Street where Still lived from 1850 to 1855.

Still is shown here in a portrait published in "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom," by Wilbur Henry Siebert, Albert Bushnell Hart Edition (1898).


Library Company of Philadelphia

Henry "Box" Brown was born enslaved on a Richmond, Virginia, plantation around 1816. A slave owner had Brown's wife and children sent away to North Carolina in 1848; Brown subsequently resolved to escape slavery by any means necessary.

With the help of white shoemaker Samuel Alexander Smith and the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society, Brown devised a plan. On March 23, 1849, Smith shipped him in a box, 3 feet long by 2 feet wide, from Richmond to Philadelphia by rail. Brown had only a small canister of water, a few biscuits, and a hole cut in the box for air to survive the 27-hour voyage.

Brown was received in Philadelphia by several local abolitionists including William Still (1821–1902); this 1850 lithograph depicts the event. After gaining his freedom, Brown embraced show business and traveled across England and the United States as a magician. Many of his acts included a retelling of the escape story and featured the original shipping box. Brown remarried in 1859 and his last recorded performance took place in 1889.

Robert Purvis

Boston Public Library

Robert Purvis (1810–98) was an early leader in Philadelphia’s free black community. In 1833, Purvis helped organize the American Anti-Slavery Society as well as the Library Company of Colored People in Philadelphia, based on the Library Company of Philadelphia. In 1838, a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution that threatened the voting rights of free blacks prompted Purvis to write the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Philadelphia to address the misconceptions held by the public.

Though he was unsuccessful in blocking ratification of the amended constitution, Purvis continued to serve as an activist in the community. In 1837 he brought a Vigilance Committee to Philadelphia, which focused its efforts on aiding escaped slaves and free blacks kidnapped into slavery. Purvis’s home, located at Ninth and Lombard Streets, held a secret room in the basement to help fugitive slaves on their way to freedom. Purvis is pictured here in a c. 1840s daguerreotype.

Passmore Williamson

Library of Congress

An unusual informal portrait of the secretary of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society depicts Passmore Williamson (1822–95) seated in a prison cell. Williamson was sentenced on July 22, 1855, to imprisonment for his "false return" (evasive testimony) to a writ of habeas corpus issued by Federal District Court judge John Kane. Williamson's testimony related to his part in the freeing of three slaves owned by U.S. minister to Nicaragua John Hill Wheeler in Philadelphia.

Williamson's imprisonment gave rise to heated public controversy over the issue of states' rights and the status of slaves traveling through free territory. Kane's action was heavily criticized in the press. Williamson was released from prison on November 3, 1855, after giving a new, slightly modified testimony.

Plymouth Friends Meeting

Library of Congress

Built in 1708, the Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad in conjunction with Abolition Hall (Hovenden House), which stands on the opposite side of Germantown Pike. The meetinghouse originally served as a school, which was attended by the famed Philadelphia astronomer and mathematician David Rittenhouse (1732–96). The building’s rich and colorful history includes its use as a military triage center during the Battle of Barren Hill during the American Revolutionary War.

Johnson House

Visit Philadelphia

In the 1980s scholars discovered the Johnson House, pictured here, was a “station” on the Underground Railroad. Neighborhood activists along with the museum community formed a board of directors to preserve the house and interpret it not for its period of construction, but for its significance as a site where the principles of the 1688 Germantown Protest Against Slavery were acted upon. In 1997 Johnson House was declared a National Historic Landmark for its role in the struggle for freedom.

Christiana Riot House, 1890

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On the night of September 11, 1851, Edward Gorsuch (1795–1851) of Baltimore County, Maryland, rode into Christiana, Pennsylvania, with a gang of eight men intending to arrest four fugitive slaves. The fugitives were being sheltered in this homestead, which belonged to free African American William Parker. Parker had moved from Maryland into Pennsylvania, where he organized a self-defense group to protect the local black community from slave catchers.

When Gorsuch arrived at Parker's home, a group of at least fifty men was already armed and assembled, prepared to protect the fugitives. After Gorsuch was killed in a chaotic clash, Parker fled farther north to Canada where he continued his abolition work. The homestead he defended stood until at least 1890.

Effects of the Fugitive Slave Law

Library of Congress

Abolitionist sentiment in Philadelphia increased dramatically after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Prior to this, escaped slaves were essentially freed when they entered Pennsylvania due to a state law that prevented the forcible removal of African Americans with the intent to return them to slavery. The new law mandated that local law enforcement arrest fugitive slaves, and made assisting escaped slaves a punishable offense, forcing northerners in free states to be complicit in slavery.

This 1850 lithograph shows a group of four African American men being ambushed by five white slave catchers in the distance. The African Americans are depicted in fashionable and expensive clothing, intended to show the viewer that these were not fugitives but free men. Below them, passages from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence proclaim the equality of all men. The act led to some legal cases in Pennsylvania when residents continued to assist escaped slaves.

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Related Reading

Brandt, Nat and Yanna Brandt. In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williamson and the Recue of Jane Johnson. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

Campbell, Stanley. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Gara, Larry. “William Still and the Underground Railroad.” Pennsylvania History 28 (1961): 33-44.

Gigantino, James J. II, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Harrold, Stanley, Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

McCurdy, Linda McCabe. “Historic Pennsylvania Leaflet Number 29: The Underground Railroad.” Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1995.

Okur, Nilgun Anadolu. “Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, 1830-1860.” Journal of Black Studies 25(5) May 1995: 537-57.

Siebert, W.H. The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

Smedley, R.C. History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania. Lancaster, 1883, reprinted 1968 New York: Negro University Press.

Smith, David G. On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-187. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Still, William. The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters &c. Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.

Varon, Elizabeth Varon, “‘Beautiful Providences’: William Still, the Vigilance Committee, and Abolitionists in the Age of Sectionalism.” In Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the long Struggle for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love, Richard Newman and James Mueller, eds. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011), 229-45.

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