AARP AARP States Virginia Events

The Reverse Underground Railroad

Richard Bell-Thai Nguyen.jpg
University of Maryland historian Dr. Richard Bell
Photo by Thai Nguyen

In August of 1825, Cornelius Sinclair, a 10-year-old free Black boy living in Philadelphia, was snatched off the street and put on a ship with four other kidnapped boys, ranging in age from about eight to fourteen. The five boys were imprisoned for some time in a house along the Maryland/Delaware border, then made to walk on foot to the Deep South, where they became enslaved for labor purposes.

In his book Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home, University of Maryland historian Dr. Richard Bell recounts the harrowing tale of these boys, including their escape to freedom. On April 28, 2021, during an Osher Lifetime Learning Institute (OLLI) virtual lecture, Bell used the saga of the boys as an example to educate listeners about the Reverse Underground Railroad. This OLLI lecture was one of a series of free events presented in collaboration with AARP Virginia and George Mason University.

So just what is the Reverse Underground Railroad? Most of us have, of course, heard of the Underground Railroad and the pre-Civil War heroics of individuals like Harriett Tubman, who helped enslaved Blacks escape the South to freedom in the North by ushering them in secrecy, using a series of safe houses and sympathetic helpers. But few are aware that during the same period, a much more nefarious secret network performed the reverse function: kidnapping free Black people in the North to sell into slavery in the South. Between 1808 and the Civil War, tens of thousands of free Black individuals were snatched, most never to be heard from again by their loved ones.

Bell explained that the catalyst for the development of this network was legislation in 1808 that outlawed the import of humans from Africa and the Caribbean for slave labor. This had significant economic impact for Deep South states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, who faced a shortage of forced labor, mostly for cotton production. They were compelled to use American-born labor, but legitimately purchasing slaves from other slave owners was expensive, and supply did not meet the increased demand. Instead, they turned to illegal smuggling of free Black people south from northern states.

Like the better-known Underground Railroad, the Reverse Underground Railroad was loosely organized and operated in secrecy. Traffic on both was roughly the same, moving hundreds of individuals annually. But while the Underground Railroad is seen as a good organization, helping Black people escape the evils of enslavement, the Reverse Underground Railroad was just the opposite, cruelly taking free individuals and enslaving them.

Bell stated that unlike the Underground Railroad, where there is considerable documented historical information, little documentation is found on the Reverse Underground Railroad and those involved. Bribes, corruption, and apathy protected the operatives, with police turning a blind eye to their activities and white people showing indifference.

The kidnappers mostly targeted poor, often illiterate or homeless, young street kids, both boys and girls. Philadelphia was a popular target because it was the closest major free city to the slavery states in the South. The kidnapped individuals were forced to walk incredibly long distances, and many were sold off one by one along the route. Unlike slave auctions of the time, where records of sales were typically recorded, there are few records of what happened to many of these individuals.

It is important to learn about the Reverse Underground Railroad and the stories of people like Cornelius, says Bell, because Black lives have always mattered. During the pre-Civil War period, child snatching was prevalent and Black freedom very fragile, as even free Black people were not safe or protected.

This OLLI program is available for viewing on George Mason University’s OLLI channel. For more information about upcoming AARP Virginia and OLLI Mason programs, visit the AARP and OLLI Mason page.

About AARP Virginia
Contact information and more from your state office. Learn what we are doing to champion social change and help you live your best life.