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Word Count: 445
Underground Railroad in US history is a loosely organized system for helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada or to areas of safety in free states It was run by local groups of Northern abolitionists both white and free blacks The metaphor first appeared in print in the early 1840s and other railroad terminology was soon added The escaping slaves were called passengers the homes where they were sheltered stations and those who guided them conductors This nomenclature along with the numerous somewhat glorified personal reminiscences written by conductors in the postwar period created the impression that the Underground Railroad was a highly systematized national secret organization that accomplished prodigious feats in stealing slaves away from the South In fact most of the help given to fugitive slaves on their varied routes north was spontaneously offered and came not only from abolitionists or self-styled members of the Underground Railroad but from anyone moved to sympathy by the plight of the runaway slave before his eyes The major part played by free blacks of both North and South and by slaves on plantations along the way in helping fugitives escape to freedom was underestimated in nearly all early accounts of the railroad Moreover the resourcefulness and daring of the fleeing slaves themselves who were usually helped only after the most dangerous part of their journey ie the Southern part was over were probably more important factors in the success of their escape than many conductors readily admitted In some localities like Philadelphia Cincinnati Wilmington Del and Newport Ind site of the activities of Levi Coffin energetic organizers did manage to loosely systematize the work Quakers were particularly prominent as conductors and among the free blacks the exploits of Harriet Tubman stand out In all cases however it is extremely difficult to separate fact from legend especially since relatively few enslaved blacks probably no more than a few thousand a year between 1840 and 1860 escaped
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