10 Fascinating Books About the Underground Railroad

By Stephanie Brown

These powerful reads delve deep into one of the most critical chapters in American history.

The following books about the Underground Railroad span insightful nonfiction narratives to Pulitzer Prize–winning works of historical fiction. Together, they honor the bravery of those who sought freedom from the depths of oppression in America. Through these books, we remember the courage of the enslaved people who fought to escape bondage and the abolitionists who saved so many through their commitment to emancipation.

Nonfiction

Flee North

By Scott Shane

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Scott Shane delivers a “tale of triumph in the face of unspeakable tragedy” (Booklist, starred review) in this riveting new nonfiction account. Flee North centers on Thomas Smallwood, an unsung hero of the American abolitionist movement who led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom and named the “Underground Railroad” in his satirical newspaper column. Smallwood was born into bondage in 1801. After buying his freedom, he began working as a shoemaker, and not long after, he found his calling as a writer and an abolitionist. Together with a young white activist named Charles Torrey, Smallwood organized mass escapes of enslaved men, women, and children — all while striving to stay one step ahead of ruthless slave traders. Far from operating under the radar, however, Smallwood touted his victories, publishing newspaper columns that championed his successes and mocked the upholders of what he called “the most inhuman system that ever blackened the pages of history.” A searing work of American history, Flee North is not to be missed.

The Underground Railroad Records

By William Still

Born in 1821, William Still was an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped hundreds of people escape slavery in the mid-19th century. As a conductor, he also collected and preserved priceless personal letters, memos, sketches, and ransom notes left behind by those seeking freedom. In The Underground Railroad Records, first published in 1872, Still draws on this trove of primary documents to illuminate the personal stories and harrowing undertakings of the hundreds of enslaved people who escaped through the Underground Railroad. Featuring a new introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates, this collection offers a breathtaking record of the Underground Railroad told by those who experienced it firsthand.

Harriet Tubman

By Catherine Clinton

While you might think you know the story of Harriet Tubman, this sweeping biography of one of the most prominent figures of the Underground Railroad offers a far more nuanced accounting of her life than similar texts. While history tends to smooth out the rough edges of its heroes, Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman explores in detail the challenges Tubman faced, portraying her as a complicated figure who defied simplistic labels.

South to Freedom

By Alice Baumgartner

In South to Freedom, historian Alice Baumgartner presents the lesser-known history of the southern route that thousands of enslaved people took to find freedom in Mexico, where slavery was abolished in 1837. Baumgartner delves into Mexico’s antislavery policies and their impact on the U.S. abolition movement, shedding new light on antebellum America and expanding our understanding of the pivotal years leading up to the Civil War. Meticulously researched, South to Freedom serves as an important addendum to the history of the Underground Railroad. 

Beyond the River

By Ann Hagedorn

Beyond the River chronicles a group of abolitionists in Ripley, Ohio, who placed lanterns out each night on top of a hill along a riverbank to guide enslaved people across the Ohio River. Led by John Rankin, Black and white men and women risked their lives to create this important guidepost along the Underground Railroad. Ann Hagedorn’s compelling account is a testament to everyday courage and reminds us that behind the large-scale campaign to abolish slavery in America were ordinary people committed to change. 

Gateway to Freedom

By Eric Foner

In Gateway to Freedom, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and historian Eric Foner tells the story of the abolitionist vigilance committees of the mid-19th-century, a clandestine network of anti-slavery activists in New York City and beyond who were instrumental in the operation of the Underground Railroad. Foner corrects the misconception that Northern states were truly safe for Black people during this time. He highlights the era’s hostile political environment and details the gangs of bounty hunters, slave catchers, and vigilantes who prowled Northern cities to kidnap adults and children and sell them back into slavery in the South. “A visceral chronicle of defiance and sacrifice” (O Magazine), Foner’s sweeping historical narrative is not to be missed.

Bound for Canaan

By Fergus M. Bordewich

Bound for Canaan by Fergus M. Bordewich is an excellent read for anyone in search of a deeper understanding of the Underground Railroad. With its narrative starting about 60 years before the Civil War, this epic history book includes well-known figures like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, while also telling the stories of lesser-known individuals like Josiah Henson, who founded a Canadian settlement for escaped slaves, and Isaac Hopper, an abolitionist Quaker who played a key role in the formation of the Underground Railroad. Debunking myths and retelling famous stories, Bordewich’s fascinating work presents the history of the Underground Railroad in rich and nuanced detail.

Fiction

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning work of historical reinvention, Colson Whitehead takes the metaphor of the Underground Railroad and makes it literal: The figurative route of passage becomes a working subterranean railroad network complete with secret tunnels, tracks, and train engineers. The Underground Railroad follows Cora on her harrowing escape from a cotton plantation in Georgia to freedom in the North. Along the way, she faces a series of strange and terrifying experiences as state by state and stop by stop she fights for her freedom.

The Water Dancer

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

The first novel from acclaimed essayist and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer tells the story of Hiram Walker, a biracial child who’s born into slavery during the antebellum South and whose mother is sold away when he’s a boy. After nearly drowning in a river, Hiram learns that he has a superpower: He can transport himself and others to distant locations when he comes in contact with water. This discovery propels Hiram on a journey across the country and deep into the Underground Railroad, where he uses his abilities to free as many people as he can.  

The Conductors

By Nicole Glover

Nicole Glover crafts a dazzling blend of history, mystery, and magic in The Conductors. The acclaimed novel centers on Hetty Rhodes and her husband, Benjy, former conductors on the Underground Railroad. The pair were able to aid enslaved people in their quest for freedom by using magical powers that drew on the stars and constellations. After the Civil War, they put their abilities to another test: solving the murders of Black people in Philadelphia that the city’s white police force refuses to investigate. When a friend turns up dead, the mystery quickly escalates into something they’ve never seen before, testing the limits of their magic and their trust in those around them.

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