Why Did They Call It “The Underground Railroad?”

Richard Bell – University of Maryland

Why did they call it “The Underground Railroad” when it was neither underground nor an actual railroad? This talk examines this enduring mystery. Taking you inside the process of doing an historical investigation, it locates and tracks the emergence of the metaphor of an “underground railroad” in the years immediately after 1840, when this memorable figure of speech quickly and decisively replaced older metaphors to describe the work done by activists who lent aid to fugitives from slavery. We’ll explore the various reasons why this strange and mysterious metaphor has endured, and we’ll think carefully about how the image of a clandestine railway underneath 19th century America worked to evoke concepts like speed, safety, invisibility, permanence, reach, scale, coordination, progress, and modernity.