a railroad that ran on water.

norfolk, virginia’s underground railroad network

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The Story

A Gateway to Freedom.

In the early half of the 19th Century, tens of thousands of African American slaves escaped from the South to freedom in the northern United States and Canada.

Their daring escapes were made possible by a clandestine network of people, hideouts, and willing ship captains that history would eventually call The Underground Railroad.

This “railroad” didn’t operate with tracks and trains, of course. It ran on water. And secrets.

It represented America’s first non-violent resistance initiative, and some speculate that more enslaved African Americans departed the port cities of Virginia than any other area along the eastern seaboard.

How many? Hundreds at least. Perhaps thousands.

No one can ever be sure.

We do know this: With 1,500 ships visiting Norfolk’s waterfront each year, Virginia was the perfect gateway for slaves seeking freedom in the north.

Easy access.

None of this was lost on Virginia’s authorities.

In fact, they were so concerned that slaves were escaping in large numbers that they passed countless ordinances from 1820 through the eve of the Civil War. The laws allowed for the search and seizures of vessels entering Virginia’s waterways. Especially those from the North.

Yet the practice of using slaves to do much of the work in port areas also afforded black men and women easy access to the numerous ferries, sloops, and other ships that occupied the waterways throughout Hampton Roads.

Black men held the preponderance of maritime positions along the Chesapeake Bay and its numerous tributaries that drove the slave trade from the Carolinas to New England. More...

The Story

A Gateway to Freedom.

In the early half of the 19th Century, tens of thousands of African American slaves escaped from the South to freedom in the northern United States and Canada. More...

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