National Park Service Adds 16 New Underground Railroad Sites to Commemorative Network

The recognitions honor the resistance and bravery of freedom seekers and their allies who risked their lives to resist slavery

A cabin structure is illuminated from within, with light pouring out in between metal slats engraved with lines of poetry
The Commemorative at St. Mary's College of Maryland honors the enslaved people who once lived and worked there. Bill Wood / NPS

The National Park Service (NPS) added 16 new sites to its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom last month.

Per a statement, additions include historic homes, former plantations, cemeteries and educational sites in 11 states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New York and New Jersey.

The newly honored sites join a network of more than 700 locations across the United States and its territories. The NPS maintains an interactive map that lists the commemorative sites.

Launched in 1998, the network honors the enslaved people who resisted bondage by fleeing to freedom between the early 19th century and the American Civil War. According to PBS, historians estimate that some 100,000 freedom seekers managed to escape their captors between 1810 and 1850. Those who “rode” the Underground Railroad, as the loose network of escape routes came to be called, traveled between safe houses, often under the cover of night, with the goal of reaching Northern states and eventually Canada, where enslavement was outlawed.

The network’s expansion coincides with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Tubman, who escaped bondage and became an abolitionist and well-known “conductor” of the railroad. As Liza Weisstuch recently reported for Smithsonian magazine, Tubman used her wits and encyclopedic knowledge of the natural landscape to lead around 70 people to freedom. Although the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 explicitly outlawed assisting freedom seekers along their journeys, the NPS notes that people “of all races, class and genders” helped them along the way.

“Like Harriet Tubman, the freedom seekers and allies highlighted in each Network to Freedom listing remind us of what can be accomplished when people take action against injustice,” says Diane Miller, national program manager of the Network to Freedom, in the statement. “Each listing holds a unique part of the Underground Railroad story.”

Some new listings cast light on intimate local stories related to enslavement and escape. Others offer unique opportunities for members of the public to learn about this chapter of national history.

As Kayla Clarke reports for Click on Detroit, the burial sites of freedom seekers George and Eliza Taylor in Birmingham, a northern suburb of Detroit, are among the new additions to the network. The Taylors were the first Black people to own land in the town.

The Taylors were buried in unmarked graves in the 19th century. But research by local sleuths revealed the location of their remains—and their remarkable life stories. Staffers and volunteers at the Birmingham Museum learned that George was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1820. He escaped when he was 31 years old in 1855 and traveled for two weeks, using the North Star for guidance and surviving several harrowing close calls to reach Niles, Michigan. After evading bloodhounds, he traveled to Detroit, then crossed the Windsor River into Ontario, Canada, only returning to the U.S. after it was safe to do so.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, was born enslaved in Tennessee and sold away from her family when she was 16. After the Civil War ended, she was able to reunite with her mother, whom she had not seen in 22 years. Per Click on Detroit, the museum has raised nearly $16,000 to erect gravestones for the Taylors and hopes to install the new markers this spring.

Meanwhile, a new listing in Pennsylvania honors Waverly’s Destination Freedom walking tour, a self-directed or guided tour that explores the lives of the abolitionists and formerly enslaved people who settled in the small village.

Another newly listed hub for abolitionists, the Plane Street Colored Church in Newark, New Jersey, once stood on the property of Rutgers University, according to a press release from the school.

“The church has a very special and layered connection to the Underground Railroad,’’ says Noelle Lorraine Williams, a historian and Rutgers-Newark graduate who spearheaded the application for NPS recognition. “The teachers and clergy include national luminaries like the editor of the nation's first African American national newspaper and a reverend who was accused of taking part in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, believed to be the most comprehensive plots in the history of the United States to overthrow slavery.”

Despite its role as a community hub, the Plane Street neighborhood where the church was located was redlined out of existence in the 1950s and 1960s. In recognition of the loss of the church and the vibrant neighborhood, the university renamed an athletic field built on the property Frederick Douglass Field.

Yet another newly listed site in Maryland singles out the Mackall Plantation, now part of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Between 1750 and 1815, three to four enslaved households lived on land held first by John Hicks and later John Mackall (both planters who built their wealth with enslaved labor). Nineteen individuals from the Mackall Planation freed themselves during the War of 1812 by serving the British military or settling in British territories in exchange for their freedom.

In 2016, archaeological investigations ahead of construction of a proposed stadium uncovered artifacts from what researchers eventually identified as slave quarters. In 2020, the college unveiled a memorial to the families who were enslaved on the property. The Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland resembles a slave cabin with no doors or windows, covered in lines of poetry by Quenton Baker and illuminated from within at night.

“The Commemorative uses the slave quarter as a symbol of resilience, determination, and persistence,” writes the college on its website. “… As the slave quarters shielded the lives of the slaves from the enslavers, acting as both a refuge and a prison, the Commemorative too shields this private space.”

The college adds, “Unlike a fully recreated artifact such as whole slave cabins and villages erected to provide the public with a glimpse into historical life, the Commemorative invites us to fill in the blanks.”