Black Moses

The mystical faith and no-nonsense tactics of the Underground Railroad’s most famous leader. /

In 1831, a Kentucky slave named Tice Davids made a break for the free state of Ohio by swimming across the Ohio River. His master trailed close behind and watched Davids wade ashore. When he looked again, Davids was nowhere to be found. Davids’s master returned to Kentucky in a rage, exclaiming to his friends that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.” The name stuck, and the legend of the Underground Railroad was born.

There were no tracks on the Underground Railroad, or even any designated routes. Neither did anyone hide or travel underground. The Underground Railroad was simply a loose network of free blacks and whites in the North who helped an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 fugitive slaves find freedom in the northern United States and Canada.

Some individuals helped by offering fugitive slaves a place to hide for a day or two, others provided money for their travel to Canada, and a small number even went south to personally lead slaves to freedom.

The task of helping fugitive slaves was not an easy one. Those known to be involved in the Underground Railroad—and it was often not a secret—were criticized in popular books and newspapers in both the North and South. Neighbors spied on their activities, and slave owners and slave catchers kept their houses and businesses under almost constant watch. Some were asked to leave their churches, and their children were often harassed in school. Others, fearing for their lives, left their homes and moved to other states.

Still they remained, driven by their Christian faith and the conviction that “all men are created equal” (at a time when it was far from “self-evident”). When a fugitive slave came into ...

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