Uncovering and Recentering the Maritime Underground Railroad
Timothy Dale Walker, Ph.D.; Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; Guest Investigator, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Underground Railroad scholarship has focused almost exclusively on interior overland routes used to escape enslavement in the Antebellum South. Largely overlooked, however, is the great multitude of enslaved persons who made their way to freedom aboard merchant vessels plying coastal routes along the Atlantic seaboard. This crucial but neglected aspect of the Underground Railroad story is the focus of this talk — and a groundbreaking volume of essays edited by Timothy Walker published in 2021. With innovative scholarship and thorough research, Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad demonstrates that escaping bondage by sea was commonplace — especially from southern coastal regions where slave labor in maritime industries was ubiquitous. Such work gave enslaved people experience with vessels and seafaring, a knowledge of coastal geography, contact with ships’ crews from northern free states, and access to ocean-going northbound voyages. Successful escapes from the far South were almost all achieved by sea. By highlighting these little-known stories and describing the less-understood maritime side of antebellum escapes from bondage, this presentation will reshape our perception of how the Underground Railroad functioned, to provide a more comprehensive, accurate historical perspective.
Timothy D. Walker (B.A., Hiram College, 1986; M.A., Ph.D., Boston University, 2001) is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he serves on the Executive Board of the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture. He is a scholar of maritime history, colonial overseas expansion, and trans-oceanic slave trading, and is an Affiliated Researcher of the Centro de História d’Aquém e d’Além-Mar (CHAM); Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal. Walker was a visiting professor at the Universidade Aberta in Lisbon (1994-2003) and at Brown University (2010). He is the recipient of a Fulbright dissertation fellowship to Portugal (1996-1997), a doctoral research fellowship from the Portuguese Camões Institute (1995-1996), and a NEH-funded American Institute for Indian Studies Professional Development Grant for post-doctoral work in Goa, India (2000-2002). Walker has also been named a fellow of the Portuguese Orient Foundation (Fundação Oriente), the Luso-American Development Foundation (2003 & 2008), and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (2010-2011). In 2018 Walker was appointed a Guest Investigator of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, drawing historic climate data from archived whaling logbooks, Portuguese colonial, and other maritime documentation. He has taught maritime history aboard numerous traditionally-rigged sailing vessels, is a contributing faculty member of the Munson Institute of Maritime Studies, and Director of the NEH “Landmarks in American History” workshops series, titled “Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad” (2011–2022).
Return to main page for Coastal Perspectives Lecture Series.