By: Anna-Marie Cyrus
November 4th, 1845
All aboard the Underground Railroad! Hang on, that’s not quite right. The Underground Railroad? Yes. Underground? No. A railroad with a train? No. So then, what is it? The Underground Railroad is supposedly a vast network of safe houses, predominately black abolitionists and routes, that leads runaway slaves to the one thing they so desire, freedom.1 There has been a system such as this one since the 18th century. George Washington was once quoted complaining that one of his runaway slaves was helped by a “society of Quakers, formed for such purposes.” 2 This system continued to grow and it wasn’t until the 1830s that it was finally given the name the Underground Railroad, inspired by the emerging steam railroads. This vast network uses railroad terminology for each of its different components. For example, the safe houses are called “stations” and run by the “stationmasters,” benefactors and people who donate money and goods are called “stockholders,” and the “conductors” are the people who are responsible for transporting and leading runaway slaves to the safe houses.3 Although some routes led to northern free states and Canada, other routes lead slaves to southern cities where they could hide within the free black population.4
This network of safe houses and paths to freedom has helped around 100,000 slaves escape to freedom.5 There is a man, let’s call him Samuel T. Johnston, or Sammy-T as he was known by his close friends, who not only escaped enslavement by means of the Underground Railroad, but once he received his freedom, he also came back and became one of the incredible conductors who assisted fellow slaves in making the impossibility of freedom, possible. Sammy-T had been tossed about the slave world for 21 years when he was sold and purchased again late one October somewhere in Ohio. The leaves were changing color, the air was growing ever cooler, and yet there was still a hint of warmth on the breeze. Sammy-T served as a steward on his new master’s boat from the blustery month of October to the frigid winter month of December, and as the days grew ever shorter and ever colder and the constant stream of jobs of a steward grew more and more strenuous, Sammy began to plan his escape.6
Sammy-T began enacting his plan around November of 1833: he voiced his strong distaste for any and all free states. It was this voicing of false opinions that gained him the trust of his masters. During my interview with Sammy, he told me, “The love of liberty, that had been burning in my bosom for years, and had been well nigh extinguished was now resuscitated.”7 Sammy-T later explained to me that during his last night of slavery, he did not close his eyes once. He told me that “when not thinking of the future, my mind dwelt on the past.”8 Sammy’s mind was running from the past towards the future. He thought of his past, his family, and his life as a slave; he then thought of the present, his plan, and his escape; finally his thoughts jumped to the future, his new path, his new life and most of all, his freedom.9
On New Year’s Day 1834, Sammy-T decided that this day was to be the day of action, the beginning of a new year, a new chapter in his life, and a new era of freedom. He took only the “bare minimum of provisions, a half worn suit.”10 The boat moored alongside the dock, and Sammy-T made his escape through the city and into the woods. His journey was long, difficult, and incredibly cold. Sammy said to me, “I had long since made up my mind that I would not trust myself in the hands of any man, white or colored,”11 and later explained that after having been in the slave business for 21 years he has come to trust no one, colored or otherwise.12
His provisions gave out on the 4th day and by the end of a week he was suffering from a severe cold settling in his lungs. Sammy was weak, cold, without provisions and just barely able to crawl; it was in this desperate time that forced him to trust someone and to seek help. He met a kind quaker, let’s call him Terrance Johnston, who saved our Sammy and helped him to reach the borders of Canada and the freedom he so desperately sought. Along his long, treacherous journey, Sammy had realized that he needed a new name to really put his past behind him. Sammy took on the name Sammy Terrance Johnston so that he would never forget the first person he ever trusted, the person who scooped him up off the ground and who ultimately brought Sammy his freedom. Sammy actually wrote an autobiography and in the dedication he wrote, “I came to your door a weary fugitive… Even a name by which to be known among men, slavery denied me. You bestowed upon me your own.” 13 Now, Sammy was clothed, fed and back to full strength, given money and was able to find safe passage to Canada on a steamboat, perhaps it was a steamboat named the Lady Jane steamboat. After a cold, cruel month of wandering, starving and nearly freezing to death, Sammy-T finally finally obtained the freedom that he so desperately sought after.
His journey was long, his path was dangerous but Sammy-T persevered and reached the free nation of Canada; but his work as a rebellious, now free slave, did not end with his escape. Over the summer of 1843, Sammy-T made his way back to let’s say, Cleveland, Ohio, and worked as a steward aboard the Lady Jane. It was here, aboard the very ship that delivered Sammy to the open gates of freedom, where spent nine years working as a conductor for the Underground Railroad and assisted others in their escape of the iron claws of slavery 14.
Through Sammy’s story we see empowering examples of self motivation, heart, will power, quick witted and cleverness, and above all we learn that nothing is impossible without a little trust.
- Donald Yacovone, “Underground Railroad.” In Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 2nd ed., edited by Colin A. Palmer, 2223-2226. Vol. 5. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006), Gale Virtual Reference Library. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=oeschool&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CCX3444701249&asid=a8b1d004eb17df16b6237fc2717101e6. (accessed April 19, 2017), 2024.
- “The Underground Railroad.” PBS. Accessed April 25, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2944.html.
- Pimblott, Kerry L. “The Underground Railroad.” In Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America, edited by Orville Vernon Burton, 125-127. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed May 2, 2017). http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=oeschool&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CCX3057200212&asid=159f0a3010c36cf5ed5e592101d9f1a8.
- Britannica School, s.v. “Underground Railroad,” accessed May 2, 2017, http://school.eb.com/levels/high/article/Underground-Railroad/74229.
- Christine Rudisel and Robert Blaisdell, “William Wells Brown,” Slave Narratives of the Underground Railroad (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2014), 9.
- Ibid., 10
- Ibid., 11
- William W. Brown, “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave,” Summary of Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. Accessed May 02, 2017. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brown47/summary.html.