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Get on Board: The Story of the Underground Railroad is divided into twelve chapters and is illustrated with reproductions of photographs, paintings, sketches, and documents. Facing the first page of the text is a map of the United States in 1860 depicting the routes that fugitive slaves took from the slave states in the South to the free states and to Canada in the North. Collectively, these routes became known as the Underground Railroad, replete with station masters, conductors, and passengers. Following the text is a time line that offers a chronology of highlights in the Underground Railroad’s history, beginning in 1518 with the arrival of the first African slaves in the West Indies and concluding in 1865 with the end of slavery with the victory of the Union troops in the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A bibliography and index follow this chronology.

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The book offers a summary of social movements and legislative actions, from America’s colonial period until the Civil War, which led to the end of slavery. Jim Haskins intersperses this general history with accounts of individuals who escaped slavery, often quoting from their letters or diaries. The first organized attempts to help slaves escape to free territory were mounted about the time of the American Revolution. The first abolition society was formed in 1775 in Philadelphia. It follows that some of the earliest legislation passed in the newly formed United States concerned the prosecution of escaped slaves. In fact, the Constitution included a statement that became known as the “fugitive slave and felon clause” because it provided for the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Because many people in free states ignored this clause and helped fugitive slaves, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 in order to make it a criminal offense to help slaves escape. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 reinforced previous laws providing for the return of escaped slaves. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the debate over slavery gradually divided the country and eventually resulted in the Civil War.

The most distinctive feature of Haskins’ book is its inclusion of accounts of individuals who escaped slavery, assisted fugitive slaves, or both. He devotes one entire chapter to the story of Harriet Tubman because her life is emblematic of the Underground Railroad. Tubman was born into slavery on a Maryland plantation, and she fled north in 1849. She lived for a while in Philadelphia, where she became familiar with the Underground Railroad and with the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, another organization that helped fugitive slaves reach freedom. Tubman began making trips back to Maryland to help other slaves escape, and she made so many such trips that she became known as Moses. In the course of her many rescue missions, Tubman collaborated with the Reverend J. W. Loguen, called the “King of the Underground Railroad”; with John Brown, who would lead the doomed antislavery uprising in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859; and perhaps with Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who eventually became a respected orator and the U.S. minister to Haiti.

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