The Underground Railroad is a new TV series coming to Amazon Prime that turns the story of the real-life Underground Railroad into an actual train that helps deliver enslaved people to freedom. The series, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Colson Whitehead, keeps the same story as history. Except it's on a train.
The series focuses on the journey of Cora, a young enslaved woman who escapes a plantation and finds the railway, which travels through several states in the Southern U.S. to help transport its passengers to the North, where enslaved people are free. The whole time, Cora is chased by a slave catcher named Ridgeway, who tries to hunt her down and bring her back to the plantation.
The show, which is directed by Moonlight director and Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, is brutal, and it’s hard to watch. But, steam train aside, it’s based on the reality that many enslaved people faced in the 1800s.
It’s only natural to have questions about the real Underground Railroad and how it worked after watching the show. Here’s what you need to know.
What was the Underground Railroad?
The real Underground Railroad wasn’t an actual railroad. Instead, it was a network of people who offered shelter and helped escaped enslaved people from the South, according to History. The goal of the railroad was to help the enslaved people escape to the North, where they could be free.
People who were called “conductors” help guide enslaved people, and hid them in homes, churches, and schools, which were called “stations” and “safe houses,” History says.
According to PBS, about 100,000 enslaved people used the Underground Railroad to reach freedom.
When did the Underground Railroad form?
It’s not entirely clear, but History says it started in the late 18th century and continued to the Civil War, which started in 1861.
As early as 1786, George Washington complained about how his enslaved people were running away and were being helped by a "society of Quakers, formed for such purposes,” per PBS. By 1831, it was called the Underground Railroad.
Where was the Underground Railroad?
Enslaved people usually escaped border states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland, History says. Routes stretched west through Ohio to Indiana and Iowa, or north through Pennsylvania and into New England. Some went through Detroit into Canada.
Enslaved people who were further south usually had to travel on their own until they met up with the Railroad farther north, History says.
Who took part in the Underground Railroad?
Conductors on the Underground Railroad were Black and white, and Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous. She originally escaped from a plantation in Maryland and made her way to Pennsylvania, History reports. She later returned to help rescue family members and others, and eventually took more than 300 enslaved people to freedom, per PBS.
Famous writer Frederick Douglass also hid enslaved people in his Rochester, New York, home, and helped 400 of them escape to Canada, History says.
Many other people, most of whom are largely unknown, also helped enslaved people reach freedom on the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad starts streaming on Amazon on Friday.
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