Building the Underground Railway

  • Prosperity
  • 1837

To agitate against slavery and “create a fund to aid colored persons in distress,” a group of abolitionists established the Vigilant Association in Philadelphia in 1837. The association had a secret arm, the Vigilant Committee, that raised money to assist runaway slaves by giving them shelter, food, clothes, medical care, transportation, and legal assistance while they were in or passing through Pennsylvania. Because aiding fugitive slaves was illegal and dangerous, this had to be done entirely privately and apart from the courts or other apparatuses of government. To fund this work, members of the association were asked to pay dues of 75 cents annually, and a member of the committee was designated to conduct fundraising among non-members on a confidential basis so as to protect donors from reprisals by slave owners. (Gerrit Smith was a major donor.) Just the same, mobs sometimes threatened contributors. Over a period of three decades, though, the organization and sister groups in New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Boston erected many of the procedures and stopping places of the Underground Railroad that ultimately channeled thousands of escapees to freedom in Canada and other northern locations.