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The Underground Railroad and the Struggle Against Slavery

Richard Blackett, Andrew Jackson Professor of American History at Vanderbilt University, Tennesse

Date/Time: 11th February 2014

This lecture reassesses the historical significance of the Underground Railroad – a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century black slaves. It looks at the impact of the slaves’ activities and of those who helped them on the debate over the future of slavery in the critical decade before the American Civil War.

The lecture suggests three elements to the Underground Railroad. These are:

  • the decisions of slaves to flee and what affects their actions had on local, state and federal politics
  • how the law operated and the extent of opposition it generated
  • how the antislavery movement reached into areas of slavery in an effort to undermine it by encouraging and aiding slaves to escape

Much of the lecture focuses on the activities of the runaway slaves and ways we can come to grips with the actions of many who are normally lost to history.

Speaker biography

Richard Blackett is Andrew Jackson Professor of History at Vanderbilt University where he has taught since 2002. This year he is the Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Oxford University.

Professor Blackett’s research interests focus on the antislavery movement, particularly its Anglo-American connections and the efforts of African Americans to influence the movement's agenda. Much of this research was explored in his first book, Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Anglo-American Abolitionist Movement (1983). He has since written a number of other books, most recently, Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery (2013).

Richard is now working on a book that looks at the ways communities on each side of the slavery divide organised support or resisted enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and the ways escaped slaves entered the political debate about the future of slavery.