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Underground Railroad: Southern Edition

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Underground Railroad routes

The Underground Railroad was not just taking slaves to Canada. There was a southern version too, heading down through Texas and into Mexico. Here’s a good story on it.

While researching U.S. Civil War history in South Texas, Roseann Bacha-Garza came across the two unique families of the Jacksons and the Webbers living along the Rio Grande. White men headed both families. Both of their wives were Black, emancipated slaves.

But Bacha-Garza, a historian, wondered what they were doing there in the mid-1800s.

As she dug into oral family histories, she heard an unexpected story. The two families’ ranches served as a stop on the Underground Railroad to Mexico, descendants said. Across Texas and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas, scholars and preservation advocates are working to piece together the story of a largely forgotten part of American history: a network that helped thousands of Black slaves escape to Mexico.

“It really made sense the more I read about it and the more I thought about it,” Bacha-Garza said of the secretive route.

Like the more well-known Underground Railroad to the north, which helped fugitive slaves flee to Northern states and Canada, the path in the opposite direction provided a pathway to freedom south of the border, historians say. Enslaved people in the Deep South took to this closer route through unforgiving forests then desert with the help of Mexican Americans, German immigrants, and biracial Black and white couples living along the Rio Grande. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, a generation before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

But just how organized the Underground Railroad to Mexico was and what happened to former slaves and those who helped them remains a mystery. Some archives have since been destroyed by fire. Sites connected to the route sit abandoned.

“It’s larger than most people realized,” Karl Jacoby, co-director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, said of the route.

Slave owners took out newspaper ads offering rewards and complaining that their “property” was likely heading to Mexico, Jacoby said. White Texans banished Mexican Americans from towns after accusing them of helping slaves escape.

Slave-catching mobs ventured into Mexico only to face armed resistance in small villages and from Black Seminoles — or Los Mascogos — who had resettled in northern Mexico, said Jacoby, author of “The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire.”

There’s a lot of lost stories like this; narratives that get narrowed down to specific stories but that actually cover up the complexity of history. There’s all the reason in the world to focus on the Underground Railroad heading to Canada. But there were other avenues of escape too and those are unique and fascinating stories on their own.

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