Why Did They Call It “The Underground Railroad?”

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Duration 01:10:54

University of Maryland

Dr. Richard Bell is Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has won more than a dozen teaching awards, including the University System of Maryland Board of Regents Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has held major research fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and the Library of Congress and is the recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship and the National Endowment of the Humanities Public Scholar award. Professor Bell is author of the new book Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home, which was shortlisted for the George Washington Prize and the Harriet Tubman Prize.


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.




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