The Radio Times logo
We may earn commission from links on this page. Our editorial is always independent (learn more)

What was the Underground Railroad? The real history that inspired the Amazon drama

The Underground Railroad, directed by Moonlight's Barry Jenkins, follows an escaped slave named Cora.

The Underground Railroad
Amazon Studios
Published: Wednesday, 12th May 2021 at 4:19 pm

Upcoming Amazon Prime Video series The Underground Railroad is based on the alternative history novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, and set in 19th century America.


Inspired by the real-life Underground Railroad – a route of safe houses and anti-slavery activists who guided escaped slaves to safety – the novel and subsequent TV series fictionalises the eponymous 'railroad' as a literal rail transport system, complete with train tracks and tunnels, which runs through the South.

Academy Award winning director Barry Jenkins helms the 10-part series, which has earned rave reviews from critics. Thuso Mbedu plays the series protagonist, escaped slave Cora.

Here's what you need to know about the real-life history and inspiration behind Amazon's The Underground Railroad.

What was the Underground Railroad?

The real Underground Railroad (otherwise known as the "freedom train") was an elaborate network of safe houses and secret routes used by escaped slaves, which led north into free states or Canada. It's estimated that roughly 100,000 slaves had escaped bondage using this network by the mid 19th century.

The Underground Railroad
Amazon Studios

The Underground Railroad was neither a literal railroad (as fictionalised in Colson Whitehead's novel) nor made up of underground locations or ghost train stations.

Instead it was so named because of the obvious transport connotations, and because escaped slaves who embarked on the route with the help of guides or "conductors", appeared to outsiders to have disappeared or gone underground.

Rail terminology such as Conductors (guides), Stations (hiding places), and Station Masters (people who hid slaves in their homes) were among some of the code names and terms used as part of the network.

People of various ethnicities (including white, Black and Native American) assisted the Underground Railroad, among them abolitionists and formerly enslaved individuals.

The role of the guides or "conductors" was crucial, as the Underground Railroad was communicated entirely through word of mouth – there were no physical maps and no official headquarters.

Who was Harriet Tubman?

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) was an abolitionist and escaped slave, who was nicknamed "Moses" (after the prophet who led the Hebrews out of Egypt) for her role in guiding escaped slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Although she doesn't feature in Amazon's The Underground Railroad, she was one of the most famous and successful "conductors," making over a dozen highly dangerous rescue missions in order to save approximately 70 slaves (including family members). (Later biographies would exaggerate these figures, claiming she rescued 300 people over the course of some 19 missions.)

She escaped her slave owners in the southern state of Maryland in 1849, later crossing the state line into Pennsylvania. Over the next decade she would made multiple trips back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland in order to help guide other escaped slaves to freedom.

"I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger," Tubman told one audience in her later years.

Tubman had ingenious ways of avoiding detection, including escaping on Saturday nights, as the newspapers reporting the disappearances would not be published until Mondays.

During the American Civil War, she worked for the Union Army as a spy, although she was reportedly paid so little that she survived by selling homemade baked goods. In later years she became an advocate for women's suffrage.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet Glen Wilson / Focus Features/ NBCUniversal

Tubman's life story was made into an Oscar-nominated film, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo and released in 2019.


The Underground Railroad will be released as a box set, this Friday, 14th May 2021 on Amazon Prime Video. If you're searching for more to watch, take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or check out our TV Guide.


Sponsored content