Earlier this month, CEO and founder of Black Entertainment Television, Robert L. Johnson, announced he would donate three million dollars to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, scheduled to open in 2004. It is one of the largest donations for the Center, an interactive museum dedicated to the story of one of the most vigilant protests against slavery in U.S. history.
The Underground Railroad was neither "underground" nor a "railroad," but a loosely organized network of anti-slavery activists who helped to aid escaping slaves north to non-slavery states. For more than three decades prior to and throughout the Civil War, blacks living in northern states, some native Americans and white abolitionists joined forces and risked prosecution by the law to fight what they believed to be an immoral institution.
Faith Davis Ruffins a historian with the Smithsonian Museum of American History and an associate curator for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio says "The minute a person ran off a farm, because they were considered to be chattel, there were advertisements. They describe people very specifically, often what clothes they had on and what they took with them. So it was very important to find a safe place."
At the time of legal slavery in the United States, up until 1866, there were laws protecting slave owners. Ms. Ruffins said the risk involved to help a slave escape or even to harbor a slave could be deadly even in non-slaveholding states.
"Because slavery is legal, if an owner has lost a slave by a person seeking their own freedom, then it was the legal responsibility of every American to aid that owner by returning this person to slavery. And there are people, both white and free African-American people who are imprisoned in some cases die in prison who are judged to be aiding escaping slaves and they lose, in some cases, their property and pay, in some cases with their lives. So the people who did this are true heroes," she explained.
Ms. Ruffins said only a relatively small group of people helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. It included the Quakers and other religious groups as well as individuals. They hid the slaves in their homes, and helped them with safe passage to places with a high degree of abolitionist activity - including Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Canada.
"I think the message is the same, that the tragedy is the same and the opportunity for redemption is the same," she said.
Black Entertainment Television founder and philanthropist Robert L. Johnson likens the story of the Underground Railroad to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust and the people who hid them. He said it is an example of unprecedented interracial and interethnic cooperation in 19th century America.
"If you can imagine if you're sitting in your home and having a good time with your family at dinner and all of a sudden your next door neighbor knocks on your door and says, 'Excuse me, can I hide a slave in your garage or barn?' You would first think, 'Why do I want to risk?. . . First of all, it's against the law, I don't want to break the law. Two, I don't want to risk my family being ostracized by the community or maybe harmed by people trying to catch the slave. They may torch the house, burn the barn or something.' So people can easily say, 'I'll pass, I'll say 'no' I won't get involved.' And from the standpoint of the slaves you could argue, 'My choices are: I could live here and face this constant degradation or I can take a risk and possibly get my freedom or more likely end up dead, because if I'm recaptured, that's probably my punishment,'" Mr. Johnson said.
The Underground Railroad existed until 1866, when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed, outlawing slavery in the United States. Smithsonian curator and historian Faith Davis Ruffins says its legacy has impacted other civil rights movements throughout history, especially for women's rights.
"When we think of the suffrage movement the movement to get women the vote in the U.S., grows out of the abolitionist movement. So there were many women's groups that were very interested in the Underground Railroad because its activities gave women - black and white women in the 19th century - a public role, a way to be involved in public activities in a moral and committed way. It allowed them to become speakers. So the Underground Railroad, as part of the larger abolition movement, was really a movement in which women became very empowered," Mr. Ruffins said.
Historian Ruffins adds that there is currently renewed interest in the Underground Railroad. For the past decade, the National Park Service has been working on a survey documenting approximately 500 sites significant to its history.
This February, the Smithsonian Museum is holding a three-day conference which will include scholarly discussions and entertainment. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, scheduled to open in 2004, will be the first major museum in the country devoted exclusively to the Underground Railroad, slavery and civil rights.
Contributor to the Freedom Center, Robert L. Johnson says if the museum "succeeds in delivering the message of the brutality of slavery and the contribution of white Americans to eradicate it, then I think they will achieve a great deal helping this country to improve its race relations."