In 1998, the National Park Service issued a directive that slavery was to be interpreted at all properties where it was a relevant topic. One immediate impact of this is that the national Civil War battle sites here in Tennessee now address the social causes and legacies of the national conflict. Another outcome of this directive was the creation of the Underground Railroad initiative of the National Park Service. This is an effort to link all the known sites of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) and to prepare educational materials for use by the sites to interpret this widespread resistance movement. Because of Tennessee's location, geography, and pronounced sectional differences, the state offers a unique opportunity to examine slavery and the Underground Railroad.
The history of the Underground Railroad in Tennessee is based primarily on oral tradition. Former slaves passed down stories and information about the Underground Railroad to family and trusted friends. Few people who assisted escaping slaves kept anything in writing that could incriminate them during the actual days that the Underground Railroad operated in Tennessee. At the time, individuals could be arrested and tried for aiding and abetting fugitives. After the Civil War, those involved in the resistance movement were reluctant to pen much in the way of memoirs or reminiscences because of the bitter divisions and violence that continued for many years in the state.
What has emerged from this oral tradition is a story of resistance to slavery and interracial cooperation, centered largely in the easternmost counties of Tennessee.
In the South of the 1830s, there was a growing dependence on slavery to support the economy of the region. During this decade, slave owners also developed a new sense of fear and mistrust of slaves following the well-publicized slave rebellion of Nat Turner in Virginia. In this climate, lawmakers at the state and local levels enacted new laws to regulate both slaves and free blacks. In Tennessee, laws were passed that forbade free blacks to enter and live in the state.
In 1834, a state constitutional convention took away the right of free black men to vote in Tennessee. An 1836 law against incendiarism meted out prison time for anyone who produced, circulated, or possessed materials that might encourage resistance to slavery. By 1850, when the United States Congress passed the Second Fugitive Slave Law, the sectional divisions over slavery in Tennessee were wide and bitter. The Underground Railroad in the state operated in this climate.
Tennessee's location, geography, and diverse population contributed to Underground Railroad activity within the state in the decades prior to the Civil War.
The sectional differences, based on geography, economics, and politics, were striking. In East Tennessee the ridges, valleys, and mountains allowed only small farms. Large row crops and a plantation economy were not possible because of the geography. Therefore, while slavery did exist in these counties, only 1 in 12 people was a slave.
In Middle Tennessee, where larger farms and some plantations existed, agriculture on a large scale was an important factor in the economy. Every third person was a slave.
West Tennessee, where the terrain flattens out between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, was well suited to growing long rows of crops. Here, where plantations covered hundreds of acres, the slave population was large. Three or four of every five persons, depending on the county, was a slave.
By 1860, slaves made up roughly one-fourth of the population of Tennessee. Slave trading was lucrative, and markets in Nashville and Memphis prospered.
East Tennessee was largely anti-slavery in its sentiments and politics. The economy was not dependent on slave labor, and an active abolitionist movement, prompted by religious and moral convictions, emerged very early. In 1797, one year after Tennessee became a state, the Friends Society, more commonly known as the Quakers, began to organize opposition to slavery. Elihu and Elijah Embree, sons of a Quaker minister who came to East Tennessee from Pennsylvania in 1790, played a prominent role. Elihu, an iron manufacturer, owned slaves as a young man but by age thirty had become an ardent abolitionist. By 1815, he was a leader in the abolitionist society organized in Greene County.
Elihu Embree first published The Emancipator in April of 1820 in Jonesborough (Washington County). The monthly periodical was the first publication in the United States devoted exclusively to the antislavery cause. Embree called slaveholders "monsters in human flesh" and argued vehemently against additional slave-holding states being allowed in the Union. Embree's condemnation of slavery was as harsh as any, including the better-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who began publishing his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, in the 1830s. By the time The Liberator was first published, there were 25 anti-slavery societies in Tennessee, with a membership of about 1000.
In Blount County, the Quakers established two towns, Unitia in 1791 and Friendsville about 1796. The Friendsville community became the site of the Newberry monthly meetings of Quakers in 1808. Friendsville Academy was established in 1857 and still operates, with one or two original buildings remaining, as the local high school. The Quakers at Friendsville were connected to the Underground Railroad movement.