Race to Freedom: Underground Railroad (1994) TV




Director:  Don McBrearty.

Starring:   Falconer Abraham (Walter), Dwight Bacquie (Jeb), Janet Bailey (Sarah), Nigel Bennett (Levi Coffin), Tyrone Benskin (Ward),  James Blendick, Peter Boretski (Judge Andrews), Tom Butler, Len Doncheff (Auctioneer), James B. Douglas (Businessman), Adrian Gittens (Matthew Brown), Ron Hartmann (Senator), Susan Hogan, James Kidnie (Cargo handler), Gza Kovcs (Bounty hunter), Dawnn Lewis (Minnie), Gene Mack (Driver), Sam Malkin (Train supervisor), Diego Matamoros (Train official), Andre Ottley-Lorant (Motherless boy), Jennifer Phipps (Mrs. Andrews), Tim Reid (Frederick Douglass), Kurt Reis (Sheriff), Michael Riley (Boss), Sandi Ross (Mrs. Fanon), Judith Scott (Mrs. Brown), Ron Small (Ben), Glynn Turman (Solomon), Courtney B. Vance (Thomas), Carlton Watson, Ron White, Alfre Woodard (Harriet Tubman), Joseph Ziegler (Mr. Wilson).

slaves escape to Canada and freedom via the Underground Railroad


An o.k. movie.  The movie opens with the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglas condemning the new Fugitive Slave Act.  Slaves who escape from the south to the north are no longer free when they reach the north for slave catchers can now work in the north to bring back slaves to their rightful "property" owners.  The slaves will only be free if they reach Canada. 

The next scene in on a plantation in North Carolina.  Slave catchers have brought back Joe, a recurrent run away.  He must be made an example of and the plantation owner, Colonel Farley, gives the order to break one of Joe's ankles.  Sarah, Joe's sister, is a favorite of the master.

Dr. Ross from Canada comes to visit Colonel Farley; they have something in common, both are interested in birds.  The neighboring slave owners meet Dr. Ross and complain about Canada disregarding the laws of the United States and providing a haven for runaway slaves.  Dr. Ross just protests that he is not involved in politics; he's just a Canadian. 

Later Dr. Ross talks to the slave Thomas and tells him that he is a conductor on the Underground Railway and he will help him and any other slave get away to Canada.  A small group meets with Dr. Ross and he tells them how to use the underground railroad: use the password "friend of a friend" and look for a candle set in the window that will indicate a "safe" house.  Thomas convinces Sarah to go with him and another couple.  

The four head out after dark.  But along the way, the other male runaway foolishly goes out during the day and is caught and then shot by two of the best slave catchers in the business.  Thomas is captured and sold to a slave trader in Williamsburg, Kentucky.    The two girls are able to get away.  They continue on their journey north, but another tragedy occurs.  Sarah's travel mate is bitten by a rattlesnake and dies. 

So now Walter is to be sold by a slave trader and Sarah finds herself all alone on her journey.  Will this couple ever be able to get to Canada and freedom?  The odds seem stacked against them.

The movie does give us some insight into the difficulties and hardships of using the Underground Railway to escape to Canada.  And along the way we get to meet Frederick Douglas and Harriet "Moses" Tubman, one of the most famous of the conductors on the Underground Railway.  There is also some treatment of the villages in Canada established as havens for run away slaves, such as Chatham, Dawn and Buxton.  Some 40,000 slaves escaped to Canada.  Two-thirds of them returned after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


1793  -- the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 made every escaped slave a fugitive-for-life, liable to recapture at anywhere within the territory of the United States. The Underground Railroad, a network of  clandestine routes for runaway slaves, developed in response to the law.

1810-1850  --  between 30,000 and 100,000 people escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad.

1850  --  the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 mandated the capture of runaway slaves. Now they had to go all the way to Canada to be free.  This gave even greater impetus to the Underground Railroad. 

At least 30,000 slaves escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.  The largest settlement was in Upper Canada (now southern Ontario).  In a triangle between Toronto, Niagara Falls and Windsor, there were a number of black communities. 

1861-1865  --  the American Civil War.  Many male blacks returned to the United States from Canada to fight with the Union Army. 

1866  --  with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment disallowing slavery, what was left of the Underground Railroad operated in reverse to bring blacks back into the United States.


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