Was there an Underground Railroad movement in Macon?

Ellen and William Craft, of Macon, who escaped from slavery.
Ellen and William Craft, of Macon, who escaped from slavery.

Where is the Underground Railroad located in downtown Macon?

That was the question posed to us by reader Danyelle Moore of Macon through Macon Me Curious, a new project of the Center for Collaborative Journalism in partnership with The Telegraph and GPB Macon. Macon Me Curious takes questions from the community and assigns reporters to find the answers.

“Knowing that, you know, slaves left the South and went up North on the quote-unquote Underground Railroad, I just felt like I wanted to know more about it being that I live in the South,” said Moore, who was born and raised in Macon.

A common misconception about the Underground Railroad is that it actually took place underground and on a railroad.

But the Underground Railroad had no physical location. Instead, it was a network of abolitionists who found ways to smuggle slaves into freedom.

Macon, being in the lower South, did not have an organized Underground Railroad or abolitionist movement per se, but unorganized, individual efforts allowed some slaves to escape to freedom. Georgia, along with Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, were considered the lower South since they did not border the North.

“The vast majority of slaves who escaped from slavery come from the upper South and the coastal South,” said David Davis, associate professor of English at Mercer University.

Slaves certainly escaped from Macon, but there were not prominent Underground Railroad “conductors” in Macon like William Still and Harriet Tubman.

“Macon was not known as one of the places where the slaves running away from their masters would come for help,” said Chester J. Fontenot Jr., Baptist professor of English and director of Africana studies at Mercer University. “Macon was known as a place you would want to get away from.”

Large abolitionist communities willing to take the risk and smuggle slaves to freedom were mostly active in the midwest and northeast in states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland. But port cities like Savannah and Augusta had access to more slave smuggling operations than midstate cities like Macon.

“What we do see, you know, in Macon are statements by many who were slaves here stating how difficult it was to negotiate space to move ... toward freedom,” Fontenot said. “I would not be surprised to find, if one could get through some of the attics and basements of some of the old homes and churches and stuff like that, to find that some of them were involved in helping people of African descent get out of Georgia.”

In 1860, there were about 4 million slaves in the United States, and about 490,000 of those were in Georgia. Up to that point, only about 5,000 slaves had escaped nationwide.

The famous escape of slaves William and Ellen Craft in 1848 from Macon was an exception to the nearly impossible task of escaping slavery in a Deep South state like Georgia.

The two developed an ingenious plan for escape. Ellen Craft was mixed-race and disguised herself as a young white man while William pretended to be her personal slave. They rode trains and stayed in hotels for four days before escaping to freedom in Philadelphia on Christmas Day.

“The stories of those few people who managed to escape were extremely important for the hope they symbolized, and that’s probably, for the lower South, the most significant aspect of the history of escape,” Davis said.

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