The Language Of Freedom: 5 Secret Codes Used In The Underground Railroad

By Anni K February 20, 2024

In the perilous era preceding the Civil War, involvement with the Underground Railroad was fraught with risk. For those fleeing enslavement and the conductors guiding them, each step toward freedom was fraught with danger.

Courtesy of Everett Collection/Shutterstock

To evade detection, conductors relied on a covert language of code words and signals, facilitating communication along the treacherous journey. In honor of Black History Month, we’ll explore some of their secret codes.

Verbal Signals: Owl Hoots

Renowned Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman utilized nature’s language, mimicking the call of the barred owl to communicate with freedom-seekers. Angela Crenshaw, a ranger at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, notes Tubman’s mastery of owl calls, employing them as covert signals amidst the night.

Railroad Terminology: A Language of Liberation

The Underground Railroad borrowed its lexicon from the burgeoning industrial age, using terms like “passengers,” “conductors,” and “stations” to veil its operations. Cindy Mullock of the Harriet Tubman Museum of New Jersey emphasizes how this terminology, though not standardized, facilitated communication across the network.

The ‘River Jordan’: Symbolism in Geography

Geographic features were imbued with symbolic significance, none more so than the Ohio River, often referred to as the “River Jordan.” Serving as a boundary between slavery and freedom, it represented both physical and metaphorical crossings to liberation.

Spirituals: Songs of Subversion

Spirituals, laden with coded messages, served as a dual expression of faith and resistance. Frederick Douglass noted their significance, recognizing their veiled references to freedom. Tubman, in particular, employed tempo variations in songs like “Go Down Moses” to signal danger or opportunity.

Courtesy of Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY 4.0 / Wiki Commons

Coded Letters: Written Whispers of Freedom

In the realm of written communication, Tubman’s coded messages transcended the spoken word. Kate Clifford Larson highlights Tubman’s use of “Old Ship of Zion” in a letter, a covert missive urging readiness for liberation.

In the clandestine world of the Underground Railroad, communication was not only a means of conveyance but also a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of those seeking freedom. Through whispered signals and covert missives, a network of hope was woven, leading countless souls toward the promise of liberty.