The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and hiding spaces used by thousands of African Americans in the nineteenth century to escape from slavery to the Northern states or Canada. Between 1820 and the start of the Civil War, as many as 100,000 people escaped slavery via this network. But when the “railroad” became obsolete in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, the former safe houses and other significant buildings used by abolitionists and refugees often fell into disrepair and faded from memory.
As part of the national reckoning with slavery, some colleges and universities have helped to restore and commemorate the legacies of resistance, freedom, and multiracial cooperation represented by the Underground Railroad.
Below are some examples from CIC member institutions. This is not a complete list (so please let us know about other campuses with a site, building, monument, etc., related to the Underground Railroad so we can feature them in a future blog post).
Rare among institutions in the era of its founding (1860), Wheaton College in Illinois was explicitly “an anti-slavery school.” Blanchard Hall once housed escaped slaves in two hidden basement tunnels; after several renovations, the space is now “a series of staircases, landings, and study nooks.”
To preserve its abolitionist legacy on campus, Wheaton has considered multiple ways to honor the escaped slaves and their brave defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act. Inside Blanchard Hall is an octagonal tower that formerly marked the grave of a prominent abolitionist, James Burr (1814–1859). On his death, Burr bequeathed $300 to “[train] young men who were wholly devoted to the cause of Christ [and] opposed to slavery.” But Wheaton doesn’t just commemorate white abolitionists: the first floor of Blanchard Hall also has a permanent exhibit devoted to the history of African American worship in the community, which is apt for a building once used as a chapel.
Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, was another antislavery college, founded by abolitionist George Washington Gale in 1837. An early trustee of the college, Samuel G. Wright, kept a detailed diary that chronicled Gale’s (and the college’s) aid to freedom seekers moving through Illinois. The diary is just one of the numerous documents and artifacts related to the anti-slavery movement held by the campus library and archives.
In 2004, Knox College was recognized as a “Freedom Station” by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (the first site in Illinois to be so recognized), joining a nationwide network of sites devoted to research and education about the antislavery movement. In 2022, Knox College received a grant of $1.2 million from the Mellon Foundation to support the study of abolition in both the past and present.
Preservation is not reserved for physical buildings; natural landscapes with historical ties to anti-slavery can be preserved, too. Nestled within a campus that was founded by Quakers and (and still remains true to this legacy), the Guilford College Woods serve as a “silent witness” to the legacy and actions of the Society of Friends and their involvement in the abolitionist movement. The college has carefully protected the woods — including the Underground Railroad Tree, a tulip poplar that dates back to the late 1700s —and offers tours for interested students and community members at what is understood to be the “southern terminus” of the Underground Railroad.
Guilford has also partnered with Guilford County Schools to launch a curriculum with lesson plans designed for 4th, 8th, and 11th graders.
Many of the faculty, staff, and students of Marietta College (Marietta, OH) were active contributors to the work of the Underground Railroad. A new historical marker on campus, unveiled in 2022, recognizes local heroes of the abolitionist movement.
Tony Mayle, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Association Dean of Students, says that it requires a “village effort” to create new historical markers to recover hidden histories. In this case, a passionate community member approached the college and became deeply involved in the research and activism that culminated in the historical marker. (A freedom garden is also planned.)
Mayle says that small colleges and universities that want to replicated this kind of project should start by mining the resources in the institution’s own special collections and archives, paying special attention to individuals that are worthy to commemorate.
“You can try to change the culture within, but you have to try and educate the local community at the same time,” explained Mayle in an interview for this blog post.
Mark Twain summered in Elmira, New York, during the 1870s and 1880s and wrote some of his most notable works there, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. So it’s no surprise that Elmira College is home to the Center for Mark Twain Studies. The Center holds a bountiful collection of Twain memorabilia, supports a range of scholarly activities, and offers public programs including virtual tours, podcasts, and short films. In addition, the Center has digitized the materials in its collection connected to Mark Twain and the Underground Railroad. (The city of Elmira was a significant stop on the Underground Railroad, but few if any traces of this activity remain on the college campus.)
Talladega College, a private HBCU in central Alabama, is home to a cycle of six murals commissioned from prominent African-American artist Hale Woodruff (1900–1980) in 1938. The murals depict heroic acts of anti-slavery resistance — including the Amistad uprising, the Underground Railroad and the founding of Talledega itself during Reconstruction. Following a national tour and extensive restoration, the murals were permanently relocated to the college’s Dr. William R. Harvey Museum of Art in 2020.