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Thousands Helping Thousands

We often say that we think there were thousands of free Black people helping thousands of freedom seekers to self-emancipate.

Why do we say thousands? Here's how we came up with those kinds of numbers.

They didn't come with suitcases or hotel reservations

I think the first thing to think about is the practicality of ARRIVING. It was a harrowing journey to escape and you basically arrived in the north with nothing. You may have stopped at safe houses run by Quakers or AME Churches along the way, and they may have given you fresh clothes, but that's about it.

This was really more of a refugee flow...think of more recent refugee movements when people have to leave right away and need immediate assistance when they get to a place of sanctuary.

AI generated refugee Freedom Seekers arriving in Philadelphia at night in 1838.

The first Vigilant Committee (1838-1842) notes describe family groups arriving. Here's a case of a "very interesting family" of eight arriving in November 5, 1838.

November 5th (1838), case Number 40. "Eight persons from vir, a very interesting family, sent to Canada, accompanied by the agent."

Just with this one case (and there were hundreds more) The Vigilant committee had to do the following late on a Monday night in 1838.

  • Find new clothes for 8 people.

  • Feed 8 people

  • Find a place for 8 people to sleep

  • Buy tickets for 8 people to go to Canada

  • Arrange for someone (the agent) to go to Canada with them

  • Communicate with Canadian friends to do this all over again for this family in Canada.

How may people did that take? I'll try to add it up.

  • 1 to greet the family

  • 2 tailors or seamstresses to find or make cloths for the family

  • 1 person running a safe house for the family to rest

  • 1 person to cook for the family

  • 1 doctor to care for any of the family that was wounded

  • 1 person to pay for the family to move north

I'll stop there because I think you might be getting the point by now. That's about 7 people for every group of freedom seekers that arrived. And they arrived weekly.

I think that the helpers came from the organized social units of churches and beneficial societies that existed at the time.

AI Generated picture of the Brotherly Union Beneficial Society meeting in Philadelphia in 1838 to discuss assisting Freedom Seekers

Because remember. No cell phones. And this all had to be done discreetly. I haven't even counted the messager boys that were probably running back and forth with notes.

Here's where the thousands come in

Let's assume a 7 to 1 ratio of people providing assistance to groups of freedom seekers. Scholars estimate 100,000 people self-emancipated. There were two main routes North - one through the center of the country and the other up the East coast with Philadelphia as a key landing spot. If only half of the 100,000 came through Philly that would be about 50,000 people from 1800-1850; 1,000 a year, 70-80 a month.

The 7 helpers probably helped over and over again. So let's account for some people working multiple cases in a month - so instead of 7 people per case let's say 3. 3*70. That's 210 helpers a month. Rotating people and schedules, means that there were probably about 200-2000 different people over the course of the year to fill in those 210 slots a month.

This is a back of the napkin conservative estimate.

We see that in the Report on the Colored People from 1838, 7448 people belonged to some kind of social group - beneficial societies. Already organized, these groups of people could probably rapidly assist people who needed help.

Maybe more than 100,000 freedom seekers?

We can see here that the population of free Black people in the US was 488,070 by 1860. So if only 100,000 people escaped on the Underground Railroad, where did the other 388,000 people come from? How did they become free?

So let's say that there were 100,000 freedom seekers. We would expect to assist about 167 freedom seekers a month.

But if there were closer to 400,000 freedom seekers then we might expect more like 667 a month.

This kind of number jives with a few historical records we have. Here's an excerpt from Smedley's History of the Underground Railroad where we see 168 people in ONE NIGHT in 13 safe houses in Philly.

So that's where the thousands helping thousands comes in. I think that most of us have a mental picture of a trap door in a floor when we think of the Underground Railroad - small confined spaces for small groups of freedom seekers to hide on the way North. It's what's we've seen on tv.

Let's visualize all those folks arriving instead.

“Eight arrived from Virginia”. AI generated image.

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