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Portrait of Harriet Jacobs
Portrait of Harriet Jacobs. (Credit: Courtesy of Jean Fagan Yellin)
Harriet Jacobs, a slave in North Carolina, escaped to freedom by sea in 1842. In her autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself,” Jacobs describes how the Edenton, N.C., African-American community, including black seamen, arranged for her escape on a schooner bound for Philadelphia.

In 1849, Thomas Jones escaped slavery by hiding on a ship bound for New York. In the North, he worked for the abolitionist cause and published three narratives including the “Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave.”

“The maritime routes of the Underground Railroad were vital for thousands of fugitives who stowed away, impersonated free black mariners, bought passenger tickets, or enlisted the aid of sympathetic captains and crewmembers,” according to David S. Cecelski, author of “The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina.” “Runaways depended on maritime blacks.”

Map of URR routes.
Map of URR routes. Click here for a larger image. (Credit: Rutgers University)
During the antebellum period coastal ports like Edenton were crowded with black seamen. Blacks worked as stewards and cooks on most ships and held skilled crew positions on many vessels. Ferrymen, nearly always slaves, departed from local docks to convey passengers and goods.

“At the wharves, slave women peddled fish, oysters, stew and cornbread to hungry sailors and found a ready marked for laundry services,” Cecelski wrote. “Slave artisans caulked, refitted, rigged and rebuilt as necessary to keep wooden vessels at sea. Their maritime culture provided runaways with a complex web of informants, messengers, go-betweens and other potential collaborators.”

According to sailing journalist Patrick Philbrick, abolitionist Frederick Douglass also associated his freedom with the sea. As a slave on a landlocked Maryland plantation, Douglass would look longingly toward Chesapeake Bay and its sailing ships, which represented everything that had been denied him by slavery.

Douglass worked as a caulker in the shipyards of Baltimore, and in 1838 he used his knowledge of seafaring life to plot his escape. In his autobiography he describes how after borrowing a seaman's protection certificate from a free black sailor, he assembled the appropriate seaman’s clothes: "a red shirt and tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied in sailor fashion, carelessly and loosely about my neck."

The carefully calculated disguise enabled Douglass to board a train bound for Philadelphia without raising suspicion.




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