Decoding the Underground Railroad: Hidden signs to freedom

Hidden History

CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – They used words like “depots” and “agents.” Not as details to a luxurious trip they were planning but instead those terms were code.

“Depot” meant hiding places and “agents” were sympathizers who helped connect runaway slaves on the underground railroad. And getting it right meant the difference between life and death for all helping with the freedom movement.

Historians estimate that approximately 100,000 slaves escaped using the underground railroad in the early to mid-1800s.

“It’s a code that had a lot of secrecy in it,” said Charles Minimah, curator at the Heritage Towers Museum. “I’m surprised that it didn’t somehow leak out.”

Charles Minimah is the curator of the Heritage Towers Museum and Culture Center located in downtown Charleston. Their goal is to make sure this part of American history isn’t lost because something as simple as a quilt could hold vital information for those trying to escape.

“The slaves would put together a quilt, hang it on the window, and this particular pattern is called the flying geese,” stated Minimah. “It points to the direction of the next safe house with the station master, mostly white people who took in fugitive slaves.”

Quilts like this one were hung from windows in the Underground Railroad. This “Flying Geese” pattern was a sign to point to the next safe house. Feb. 27, 2020 (WOWK 13 News Staff Photo)

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it even more difficult for slaves to escape. The law allowed for slaves to be returned to their masters even though they were in a free state. So for many, the final destination became Canada.

“It’s very clever on the part of the people who did what they had to do to help the fugitive slaves,” Minimah said. 

It was about being able to communicate in plain sight. Famed abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, used “wade in the water” to instruct slaves to hide underwater to avoid being seen. Or, phrases like “steal away to Jesus” could alert other slaves that an escape attempt was anticipated and there was no room for error for the slaves or those trying to help them.

“In that period, you had the white population that was also effective,” Minimah added. “They were instrumental in the successful departure of slaves. People don’t always think about that in today’s world. We talk about racism and people are painted with a wide brush. ‘All white people are racist.’ That is not true; if it was not for those people risking their lives, many would’ve been lost.”

To learn more about the creative language and inventive techniques used along the underground railroad, go to visit the Heritage Towers Museum and Culture Center’s website.

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