February is Black History Month, during which both the struggles and the accomplishments of people of African descent are celebrated. In recognition of the observance, the Royal Canadian Mint recently released a coin commemorating the Underground Railroad, a movement in the mid-19th century that helped enslaved people in the Southern United States escape to freedom in Canada.
What Was the Underground Railroad?
By the early 1800s, most of the Northern states in the U.S. had abolished slavery. However, it still persisted in the Southern United States. Many people in the North were sympathetic to the plight of enslaved people. Feeling that slavery was a moral wrong, they undertook clandestine measures to help enslaved people escape to freedom. The Underground Railroad, therefore, was a network of people, Black and white, who helped guide escaped enslaved people north to avoid recapture. Most of the travel took place at night to avoid detection. Most escaped enslaved people were bound for Canada, a journey that could take weeks on foot. Therefore, the Underground Railroad also included safe houses owned by abolitionists where escaped enslaved people would be provided with food, clothing, and shelter during the day, hidden until night fell and it was safe to continue their journey.
To avoid detection, members of the Underground Railroad used coded speech using authentic railroad terminology to coordinate their activities:
- “Passengers” were escaped enslaved people
- “Conductors” were guides
- “Stations” were safe houses
- “Stationmasters” were those who offered their homes as shelters
Many conductors on the Underground Railroad were formerly enslaved people who had escaped to freedom themselves and returned to the United States, at great personal risk, to help others escape. Perhaps the most famous of these conductors was Harriet Tubman.
Stationmasters on the Underground Railroad were often ordinary people, such as business owners and farmers. They were fortunate enough to own property, and they used it for the benefit of others. Many participants were Quakers, a religious sect that believed they could see the imprint of God in everyone. Ministers of other Christian denominations also participated.
Why Did Escapees Go To Canada?
At first, escaped enslaved people aspired to go no further than the Northern states where slavery was abolished. However, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts allowed escaped enslaved people in Northern states to be recaptured and extradited to the South. Slavery in Canada was abolished in 1834, and Black people who fled there would be safe from extradition and afforded rights that they may not have had access to even in the Northern states, though they still faced prejudice.
What Is Significant About the Design of the Coin?
The obverse features Susanna Blunt’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth against a field of maple leaves. It also features the face value, $20, and the year of release, 2022. The reverse, designed by Canadian artist Kwame Delfish, features no lettering or numbers except for the single word “CANADA,” which was so significant to those travelling the Underground Railroad.
The point of view of the reverse image is from the ground looking up at the sky, where the Big Dipper is visible. This constellation was significant to help passengers and conductors on the Underground Railroad identify north and keep from losing their way. It was referred to as the “drinking gourd” to remain inconspicuous.
Escapees travel amongst tall trees. They are men, women, and children. They travel over rocky ground that represents the challenges they faced on their journey, not only facing the risk of recapture, but battling the elements as well.
Find This Beautiful and Significant Coin From the Royal Canadian Mint at Colonial Acres
The horror of slavery hangs like a shadow over Black history, but the courage, strength, and persistence of those who followed the Underground Railroad to Canada, as well as those who returned to help others, should be celebrated. Few commemorative silver coins have the emotional impact that this one does, and you can find it at Colonial Acres.