It is believed that at least 5,000 to 10,000 people used this railway route to escape from the bondage of slavery.
For the past four years, the Donald Trump administration was pushing for the building of a wall across the Mexican border to keep immigrants at bay. After President Joe Biden took over, halting the construction of the border wall was one of the first things he signed off on. The porous border between Mexico and America has a history dating back several centuries. But back then it was people from America, mostly fugitive Black slaves, who were escaping to Mexico. This escape was assisted with the help of an Underground Railroad that came to light again recently as part of the research for a doctoral candidate's dissertation.
"These were clandestine routes and if you got caught you would be killed and lynched, so most people didn’t leave a lot of records," Maria Hammack, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, who is writing her dissertation about this topic told History.com. It is believed that at least 5,000 to 10,000 people used this railway route to escape from the bondage of slavery in America to go to Mexico where slavery was banned. Hammack, however, believes that the number could be much higher. As part of her research, she has even managed to identify a Black woman and two White men who had helped enslaved workers escape and tried to find a home for them in Mexico.
The Underground Railroad to Mexico. Across Texas and parts of Louisiana, scholars are working to piece together a puzzle of a largely forgotten piece of American history: a network that helped thousands of Black slaves escape to south of the border. https://t.co/M3S2Yo6hUM— Russell Contreras (@RussContreras) September 16, 2020
People enslaved in the Deep South took this railway route through the forests and desert with the help of Mexican Americans, German immigrants, and biracial Black and White couples living along the Rio Grande to reach Mexico reported the Associated Press. Slavery was deemed illegal in Mexico in 1829 when Texas was still a part of the country. This was almost a generation before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. "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.
This was a deeply personal story to research and write. During my reporting, I found out that my great grandfather’s mother was born in Monclova, Mexico. That was a stop on the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Her name was Francisca Martinez pic.twitter.com/Jt0scfZmc5— Russell Contreras (@RussContreras) September 16, 2020
It is unclear how organized this underground route actually was. Hammack notes that while some enslaved people may have found their way to Mexico without assistance, others depended on Tejanos, the Mexicans in Texas, who acted as conductors for them. It was the poor Tejanos who played an important role in helping escapees get to Mexico. Another researcher, Roseann Bacha-Garza, also managed to dig out more details of the railway line. While researching U.S. Civil War history, she found that two unique families of the Jacksons and the Webbers were living along the Rio Grande and wondered how they found their way there in the mid-1800s.
Ad seeking the return of a fugitive slave named ‘Alfred’ in The Texian Advocate, Sept 1862. Slave owner says he believed Alfred was heading not north, but to Mexico, where 1Ks of slaves fled. They were helped by Mexican Americans. #UndergroundRailroadtoMexico pic.twitter.com/6Kz5ZJ9VyO— Russell Contreras (@RussContreras) September 16, 2020
The two families were headed by White men married to Black emancipated slaves. "They probably felt this would be a nice place to come and re-establish themselves far away from the long arm of the law, where they’re from in Alabama," Bacha-Garza told PRI. "This place was a place where people worked side-by-side and I think it seemed like a place that was known where you could come and have a new beginning." The ranches that these families established served as a pitstop for the Underground Railroad to Mexico, oral history recounted by descendants suggests.
"It really made sense the more I read about it and the more I thought about it," Bacha-Garza said of the secretive route. Similar underground routes also existed in the north for the slaves to escape to Canada but the one near Mexico was just closer for them to get to. Northern abolitionists are also believed to have traveled South to help enslaved people reach Mexico and even try to build colonies for them by purchasing land.
To date, many Black Mexicans from the Texas area retrace a portion of the same route their African American ancestors followed in 1850 when they escaped slavery.— LoLa (@lolalissaa) June 15, 2020