Uncovering and Recentering the Maritime Underground Railroad: A Lecture by Dr. Timothy Walker
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Timothy Dale Walker, Ph.D.; Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; Guest Investigator, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Underground Railroad scholarship has focused almost exclusively on interior overland routes used to escape enslavement in the Antebellum South of the United States. Largely overlooked, however, is the great multitude of enslaved persons who made their way to freedom aboard merchant or passenger vessels plying coastal routes along the Atlantic seaboard. This crucial but neglected aspect of the Underground Railroad story is the focus of this talk — and a groundbreaking volume of essays edited by Timothy Walker published in 2021. With innovative scholarship and thorough research, Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad (UMASS Press, 2021) demonstrates that escaping bondage by sea was commonplace — especially from southern coastal regions where slave labor in maritime industries was ubiquitous. Such work gave enslaved people experience with vessels and seafaring, a knowledge of coastal geography, contact with ships’ crews from northern free states, and access to ocean-going northbound voyages. Successful escapes from the far South were almost all achieved by sea. By highlighting these little-known stories and describing the less-understood maritime side of antebellum escapes from bondage, this presentation will reshape our perception of how the Underground Railroad functioned, to provide a more comprehensive, accurate historical perspective.