Author: Cassandra Newby-Alexander

a professor of history at Norfolk State University and the director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies

Underground Railroad in Virginia

The Underground Railroad in Virginia was a series of secret networks, often working independently of one another and manned by both free Blacks and whites, designed to help enslaved African Americans escape to the North and to Canada. Such networks were less necessary in the earliest days of slavery in Virginia because runaways tended to stay relatively close to home. Only after the American Revolution (1775–1783), when northern states outlawed slavery and a new domestic trade began to send thousands of enslaved men, women, and children into the Deep South, did enslaved fugitives cross state lines in great numbers. Federal fugitive slave laws in 1793 and 1850 made such escapes more difficult but they also led to the development of the Underground Railroad, a term that had gained popular currency by the 1840s. Quakers in Philadelphia, New York, and North Carolina, burning with antislavery zeal, aided both enslaved fugitive and kidnapped free Blacks, in concert with free Blacks and even some enslaved people, began to develop networks by which to smuggle them to freedom. With the largest enslaved population, Virginia also had among the greatest number of fugitives. They left mostly by sea, with some remaining in the North and others joining Black communities in Canada. While it remains up for debate exactly how many escaped, enslavers regularly complained of financial losses. Only the abolition of slavery ended the Underground Railroad’s work.