‘Sailing to Freedom’

M.V. Museum exhibition reveals oceangoing and Vineyard dimensions of the Underground Railroad.


“Sailing to Freedom” at the M.V. Museum dives into the lesser-known history of the Underground Railroad — the maritime route to freedom. 

The show is based on research by Dr. Timothy Walker and a previous exhibition at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad” broadens our understanding of the daring sea escapes that were instrumental in slaves’ quest for liberation.

Kate Logue, associate curator of exhibitions, says, “The popular narrative is really focused on the land routes, which involved many more stops and people. It didn’t focus on how, especially from the Deep South, the only practical way to escape to freedom in the North was by sea.”

One display in the exhibit shows how Black fugitives risked everything — they stowed away, disguised themselves as free Black sailors, or bribed their way on board to make it to the North. With fewer stops and people involved, most of the documented cases of successful escapes were by sea.

The exhibition also examines the laws coastal Southern states enacted to do what they could to hinder these escapes. Some laws required free Black sailors to stay aboard ship, or to be confined to jails when in port. These laws were developed to prevent free Black mariners aboard foreign and Northern vessels from sharing information, or encouraging those who were enslaved to try and escape.

The 1788 Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution states that if an escaped slave goes from one place to another in the country, they can be captured and returned. “The Northern states weren’t really enforcing that, so the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was the first attempt to get that enforced, with an even harsher version in 1850,” Logue explains. 

“Sailing to Freedom” explores how the Island fits into maritime escapes. 

In the 19th century, the Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds were among the busiest waterways in the world, with more than 50,000 ships passing through annually, and Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) was one of the way stations. One display shows evidence of such a story in an advertisement about an escaped Black fugitive placed in Boston’s “Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser”:

“Ran away, on the night of 29th from Martha’s Vineyard, a Negro Man, named NED, about 30 years old, fpeaks good French and Englith, about 5 feet 8 inches high, very flim — Said Negro fecreted himself on board the brig Active, Capt. Fuller, from Aux-Cayes, and was not difcovered until 24 hours after failed … Whoever will take up and return him to faid Fuller … fhall receive THIRTY DOLLARS reward …”

The exhibit also highlights the stories of those who escaped. Among them, connected to the Vineyard, is Frederick Douglass, with a newspaper account of speeches he made in Edgartown in 1857 about slavery. Noted, too, is John Saunders, who, along with his wife Priscilla, escaped to freedom, arriving on Martha’s Vineyard hidden under a pile of corn. Settling initially in Oak Bluffs, they are credited as the first to bring Methodism to the Island.

There is an engrossing and detailed tracing of Edinbur Randall’s escape related to the Island. The display includes various documents that convey the complexity of reconstructing accounts of those who, by the nature of what they aimed to accomplish, were trying to be covert. 

For example, Randall escaped from Jacksonville, Fla., stowing away aboard the Franklin, was discovered, and then escaped again in Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven). He made it to Gay Head (Aquinnah) with help from members of the Wampanoag tribe, most notably Beulah Vanderhoop. She disguised Randall in women’s clothing and hid him until he could get to Menemsha, where he was ferried across to New Bedford by Vineyarders Samuel Peters and Zaccheus Cooper. 

Reproductions of various historical evidence convey the conflicting stories about what happened thereafter. According to one newspaper article, Randall immediately made his way to Canada. But another article related that he stayed in New Bedford for a while before moving on. 

“This section is about how we know what we know, and trying to reconcile the different stories,” Logue says, pointing out that each source has its own spin, from the newspapers, antislavery organizations, ship captains, to people who remember being told about the story years later.

Toward the end of the show is a wonderful, dramatic reproduction of sailors, including Black ones, in the middle of a deathly whale hunt. Logue explains that the fugitives “would disappear to avoid recapture and hope that people stopped looking by the time they got back.” 

All in all, we come away from the exhibit with great respect and awe for the tenacity and courage of those brave individuals who risked everything to gain their human right to freedom.

For more information, visit mvmuseum.org/exhibitions. There will also be a special program with Dr. Walker, “Sailing to Freedom: Recovering and Re-Centering the Maritime Dimension of the Underground Railroad,” on Friday, June 21, from 2 to 3:30 pm. For tickets, see mvmuseum.org/form-sailing-to-freedom.