Best Fiction & Non-Fiction Books About the Underground Railroad
One of the most important and yet widely misunderstood elements of Black American liberation before the 20th century was the existence of the Underground Railroad. When I say misunderstood, I’m not talking about the belief that we might have had as children—that there was a physical subway of some sort. But the scope of the endeavor was so vast. This decentralized network of safe houses, paths, and free allies made it possible for at least a few tens of thousands of formerly enslaved people to escape their captors. Enslaved people found freedom through numerous routes in every direction, including Mexico, (Spanish) Florida, The Caribbean, Canada, northern states, western territories, and various Indigenous nations.
Because this topic can be a little heavy and seem unwieldy, I’ve included fiction (the first three) and non-fiction to delve into this topic. These fictitious titles still include elements of truth and take inspiration from true stories. In each of the real stories, remember that this represents just a fraction of those that found their way to freedom before the 13th Amendment. Themselves an even tinier fraction of the millions of Black people enslaved through legalized human trafficking.
The Conductors (Murder and Magic #1) by Nicole Glover
Hetty Rhodes and her husband, Benjy, were Conductors on the Underground Railroad, ferrying dozens of slaves to freedom with daring, cunning, and magic that draws its power from the constellations. With the war over, those skills find new purpose as they solve mysteries and murders that white authorities would otherwise ignore.
In the heart of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, everyone knows that when there’s a strange death or magical curses causing trouble, Hetty and Benjy are the only ones that can solve the case. But when an old friend is murdered, their investigation stirs up a wasp nest of intrigue, lies, and long-buried secrets- and a mystery unlike anything they handled before. With a clever, cold-blooded killer on the prowl testing their magic and placing their lives at risk, Hetty and Benjy will discover how little they really know about their neighbors . . . and themselves.
The Underground Railroad (Television Tie-In) by Colson Whitehead
I included the TV tie-in due to Barry Jenkin’s take on the novel because he offers a more three-dimension look at women characters as compared to the book. Jouelzy went as far as to say this adaption was a love letter to Black people.
Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood–where even greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop.
Indigo by Beverly Jenkins
Yes, that Beverly Jenkins.
As a child Hester Wyatt escaped slavery, but now the dark skinned beauty is a dedicated member of Michigan’s Underground railroad, offering other runaways a chance at the freedom she has learned to love. When one of her fellow conductors brings her an injured man to hide, Hester doesn’t hesitate…even after she is told about the price on his head.
The man in question is the great conductor known as the “Black Daniel” a vital member of the North’s Underground railroad network. But Hester finds him so rude and arrogant, she begins to question her vow to hide him.When the injured and beaten Galen Vachon, aka, the Black Daniel awakens in Hester’s cellar, he is unprepared for the feisty young conductor providing his care. As a member of one of the wealthiest free Black families in New Orleans, Galen has turned his back on the lavish living he is accustomed to in order to provide freedom to those enslaved in the South.
However, as he heals he cannot turn his back on Hester Wyatt. Her innocence fills him like a breath of fresh air and he is determined to make this gorgeous and intelligent woman his own…
Yet…there are traitors to be discovered, slave catchers to be evaded and Hester’s heart to be won before she and Galen can find the freedom that only true love can bring.
She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Harriet Tubman is best known as one of the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad. As a leading abolitionist, her bravery and selflessness has inspired generations in the continuing struggle for civil rights. Now, National Book Award nominee Erica Armstrong Dunbar presents a fresh take on this American icon blending traditional biography, illustrations, photos, and engaging sidebars that illuminate the life of Tubman as never before.
Not only did Tubman help liberate hundreds of slaves, she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War, worked as a spy for the Union Army, was a fierce suffragist, and was an advocate for the aged. She Came to Slay reveals the many complexities and varied accomplishments of one of our nation’s true heroes and offers an accessible and modern interpretation of Tubman’s life that is both informative and engaging.
When you pick this up, do yourself a favor and read a physical or ebook copy. I originally read it as an audiobook and missed all the great photos, illustrations, and graphical elements.
The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom by William Still
While many famous people were connected to the Underground Railroad, such as Fredrick Douglas, this list isn’t just first-person narratives. However, if I were to include just one… this would be it.
As a conductor for the Underground Railroad —the covert resistance network created to aid and protect slaves seeking freedom— William Still helped as many as eight hundred people escape enslavement. He also meticulously collected the letters, biographical sketches, arrival memos, and ransom notes of the escapees. The Underground Railroad Records is an archive of primary documents that trace the narrative arc of the greatest, most successful campaign of civil disobedience in American history.
Because this book was written back in the 1800s, there are copies free online to read online such as Project Gutenberg and listen via LibriVox. If you do decide to listen to the audiobook, I recommend following along (if possible) via an ebook or PDF because this primary document has images and more. The (paid) edited version by Quincy Still features special additions such as an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and to the road to the Civil War by Alice L. Baumgartner
The Underground Railroad to the North promised salvation to many American slaves before the Civil War. But thousands of people in the south-central United States escaped slavery not by heading north but by crossing the southern border into Mexico, where slavery was abolished in 1837.
In South to Freedom, historian Alice L. Baumgartner tells the story of why Mexico abolished slavery and how its increasingly radical antislavery policies fueled the sectional crisis in the United States. Southerners hoped that annexing Texas and invading Mexico in the 1840s would stop runaways and secure slavery’s future. Instead, the seizure of Alta California and Nuevo México upset the delicate political balance between free and slave states. This is a revelatory and essential new perspective on antebellum America and the causes of the Civil War.
(featured image: Basic Books, Harper Voyager, and Modern Library)
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