The end of the Underground Railroad

David Ruggles, John Brown, Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, Thomas Garrett, William Lloyd Garrison and Mary Ellen Pleasant, among others, will rest well Tuesday night.

The train ride from Philadelphia to Washington Saturday may have signalled the end of the Underground Railroad.    This is the name given to the secret movement to free African-Americans from slavery through the 1860s.

These historical figures and thousands of others defied state and federal laws requiring the return of fugitive slaves by using the metaphor of a railroad as their connecting link.

When President-elect Barack Obama met his Vice President-elect Joe Biden at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park in Wilmington, DE, it was part of a continuing history lesson that he is sharing with the nation in a subtle, yet powerful way.

A sign in the audience caught the significance.  It read “Harriett Tubman, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama visited Wilmington, DE.”   The train’s route mirrored one of the most heavily travelled routes for the Underground Railroad, through Maryland and Delaware to the nexus of abolitionist sentiment in Pennsylvania.

In 2009, a new African-American president travelled through four cities with African-American mayors, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Although historians consider the Underground Railroad as a movement concluded with the 13th Amendment, metaphorically African-Americans have stayed in the shadows of the nation’s policies until present times.

The outrage of Katrina and the subprime debacle are rooted in the same impulses as the slave trade.

Some will criticize or be disappointed that civil rights lawyer Obama does not become chief advocate for civil rights.      However, it is useful to consider the nuances of the education in American history that he provides through his travels, speeches and actions.

Those departed heroes can rest well, knowing that the end of the Underground Railroad is near.


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