Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad - New Bedford Whaling Museum

Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad

Sailing to Freedom highlights little-known stories and describes the less-understood maritime side of the Underground Railroad, including the impact of African Americans' paid and unpaid waterfront labor. 

Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad

Center Street Gallery

Opened: May 20, 2022

Closed: November 20, 2022

CAPTION: (above) Escaping from Norfolk, Virginia in Captain Lee’s skiff," from William Still, The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Letters, Narratives, etc. (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872)

Curated by Michael Dyer, NBWM, and Timothy Walker, UMass-Dartmouth 

This exhibition was an extension of the 2021 publication of the same title, edited by Timothy Walker and released by UMass Press. It corresponded with an NEH Summer teacher’s institute “Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad,” in July 2022.

Buy the Book
View the NEH Teacher's Institute
Attend the Sailing to Freedom Conference


“The advantages of escape by boat were early discerned by slaves living near the coast or along inland rivers. Vessels engaged in our coastwise trade became more or less involved in transporting fugitives from Southern ports to Northern soil.” -- William H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898), 81.

Self-emancipation along the Underground Railroad was not entirely by overland routes. What has been largely overlooked by historians is the great number of enslaved persons who made their way to freedom using coastal water routes along the Atlantic seaboard. Enslaved African Americans often escaped by sea aboard merchant and passenger ships, or using smaller watercraft.

This groundbreaking exhibition expands our understanding of how freedom was achieved by sea and what the journey looked like for many African Americans.

Research undertaken for this exhibition demonstrates that a far larger number of fugitives than previously thought actually escaped bondage by sea -- especially those fleeing from coastal areas in the Deep South, where slaves were commonly employed in diverse maritime industries, such as: estuary and near-coastal fishing or oystering, tidal river boatmen and ferrymen, coastwise cargo shipping crews, shipyard artisans, or stevedores and longshoremen.

Such work gave enslaved persons significant experience with vessels and seafaring, a basic knowledge of coastal geography, direct or indirect contact with ships’ crews from northern free states, and ready access to vessels heading out to sea.

This specialized strategic knowledge conveyed power and opportunity. For enslaved persons in the far coastal south, escape by water was the logical option, and the only viable way to achieve an exit from their enslaved circumstances.

Exhibition Programming

The Overseas Freeway: Maritime Workers and Fugitives in the Struggle against Slavery

With Marcus Rediker

Thursday, May 19
6:00-6:45 pm: Reception & Exhibition Viewing
6:45-7:45 pm: Lecture

Registration is free.
Advance registration is required.

Marcus Rediker, professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Guest Curator at the Tate Britain Museum, discussed the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s exhibition, Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad. 

In this program we discussed this groundbreaking exhibition that expands our understanding of how freedom was achieved by sea, and what the journey looked like for many African Americans. 

Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. His “histories from below” have won numerous awards, including the George Washington Book Prize, and have been translated into seventeen languages worldwide.  He is co-author, with Peter Linebaugh of The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000) and author of The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007).  He produced a prize-winning documentary film, Ghosts of Amistad, (2013) directed by Tony Buba.  He is currently working as guest curator in the JMW Turner Gallery at Tate Britain and writing a book about escaping slavery by sea in antebellum America.

This program was made possible by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the New Bedford Historical Society, a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the National Writing Project, as well as funding from the following institutions: the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, the BayCoast Bank Foundation, the Southcoast Health Foundation, and the law firm of Lang, Xifaras, and Bullard.

Thanks To

Major funding for the exhibition “Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad” has come from the National Endowment for the Humanities through a National Writing Project “More Perfect Union” grant and the New Bedford Historical Society.
Thanks to the following contributors for financial support of the exhibition:
New Bedford Historical Society
Office of the Provost, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
BayCoast Bank Foundation
Southcoast Health Foundation
Law Firm of Lang, Xifaras, and Bullard
Thanks to the following institutions and individuals for the use of images from their collections:
New Bedford Free Public Library
The African American Museum of Philadelphia
The American Antiquarian Society
The Maryland Center for History and Culture
Lee Blake
Carl Cruz
Thanks to the following individuals for research in support of the exhibition:
Daphne Jonsson
Megan Jeffreys
Shawn Quigley
Kate Blackmer
Jonathan Schroeder
Lee Blake
Carl J. Cruz
Lynda Ames