What is The Underground Railroad series based on? Is The Underground Railroad real?

The Underground Railroad: Thuso Mbedu stars in trailer

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The Underground Railroad will land on Amazon Prime Video on May 14 and fans are excited to learn more about a harrowing trip towards freedom. The TV series follows protagonist Cora (played by Thuso Mbedu) as she attempts to flee a Georgia-based plantation. Express.co.uk has all you need to know about the inspiration for the show. 

What is The Underground Railroad based on?

The series is based on a novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead, which was published in 2016.

The historical fiction tale follows Cora and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) – two slaves in the United States during the 19th century.

They follow the Underground Railroad in a bid to make their escape from a plantation in Georgia and find freedom. 

The original novel depicts the railroad as a form of literal rail transport, including a number of safe houses and secret routes.

Viewers may be interested to hear the Underground Railroad really existed, as a secret network of safe houses for enslaved African-Americans. 

According to dictionary.com, the official definition for the Underground Railroad is: “(before the abolition of slavery) a system for helping African Americans fleeing slavery to escape into Canada or other places of safety.”

The ‘railroad’ was established at the beginning of the 19th century and it was supported by abolitionists at the time.

The Underground Railroad is also a collective title used to describe the group of people who attempted to escape, as well as those who helped them.

The routes often led to places where slavery had already been abolished, such as Mexico. The Caribbean was also a highly sought-after destination as it never took part in slave trading.  

An earlier escape route existed toward Florida in the late 17th century. 


The network as people recognise it today ran north and grew until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in January 1863 and it stated that all those held as slaves within rebellious states would be free. 

It has been suggested that by the year 1850, 100,000 slaves had managed to make their escape via the Underground Railroad. 

Unlike in the book and series, the real railroad was not a literal form of transport, as actual railroads did not exist at the time. 

Abolitionist John Rankin said it was referred to as an underground railroad as the slaves would disappear from public view as if they really had gone underground. 

The railroad was made up of a number of different contributors who all played different roles. 

Those who were enslaved were known as ‘agents’, and the guides who helped direct them were called ‘conductors’. 

Places for the slaves to hide were known as ‘stations’ and ‘station masters’ were the homeowners who took slaves in to hide them. 

People who were trying to escape slavery were called ‘passengers’.

The operation was very secretive, and in order to reduce the risk of infiltration, most people taking part only knew certain parts of the scheme instead of the whole thing. 

Actress Mbedu has been keeping fans up to date with all the latest news on the TV adaptation. 

In her latest post, she praised director Barry Jenkins, saying: “Through him just being him, he showed us what humanity looks like. Barry is also very kind.

“He is crazy and funny and so welcoming and respectful of everyone. He has this thing where he’ll randomly check in to see if you’re OK.

“That just made everyone feel safe and understood. It is hard to experience Barry Jenkins and then step out and want to be anything else but a better human being.”

The Underground Railroad airs on Prime Video on May 14. 

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