This is Freedmen’s Town, an area in Houston built by freed slaves after the Civil War. The area is believed to have been connected to the Underground Railroad to Mexico. (AP)

This is Freedmen’s Town, an area in Houston built by freed slaves after the Civil War. The area is believed to have been connected to the Underground Railroad to Mexico. (AP)

Felix Haygood was a former slave. He was 92 years old when this picture was taken. (Library of Congress)

Felix Haygood was a former slave. He was 92 years old when this picture was taken. (Library of Congress)

The Eli Jackson Methodist Church and cemetery is in San Juan, Texas. It is located on a ranch once operated by Nathaniel and Matilda Jackson. The biracial couple is believed to have been “conductors” of the Underground Railroad to Mexico. (AP)

The Eli Jackson Methodist Church and cemetery is in San Juan, Texas. It is located on a ranch once operated by Nathaniel and Matilda Jackson. The biracial couple is believed to have been “conductors” of the Underground Railroad to Mexico. (AP)

Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition president Dorris Ellis Robinson, right, and Catherine Roberts, left, look over a model of Freedmen’s Town in Houston. Scholars and preservation advocates are studying a largely forgotten piece of American history: the Underground Railroad to Mexico. (AP)

Freedmen’s Town Preservation Coalition president Dorris Ellis Robinson, right, and Catherine Roberts, left, look over a model of Freedmen’s Town in Houston. Scholars and preservation advocates are studying a largely forgotten piece of American history: the Underground Railroad to Mexico. (AP)

This 19th-century illustration shows escaping slaves hiding in southern swamps. (AP)

This 19th-century illustration shows escaping slaves hiding in southern swamps. (AP)

Forgotten Railroad

Posted: January 1, 2021

In the Deep South of the United States, scholars discover something almost everyone else forgot: the Underground Railroad to Mexico.

What was the “Underground Railroad”? It wasn’t underground. It wasn’t even a railroad! Instead, it was a network of small, local groups of people. They helped African American slaves on their way north to freedom. Or—it turns out—on their way south.

Scholars know that slaves didn’t find freedom only in northern free states or Canada as most people think. Many got their liberty in Mexico. Mexico abolished (ended) slavery in 1829. That was a generation before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

Historians have known about this part of the Underground Railroad for years. They wrote about it. In 1936, people interviewed former slave Felix Haywood. What would slaves in the Deep South think about running north to freedom? Mr. Haywood said they would laugh!

“All we had to do was walk, but walk south,” he said, “and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande.”

This route may have been closer . . . but it still wasn’t easy. Slaves first trekked through unforgiving forests. Next they journeyed through desert. But they had help. Mexican Americans, German immigrants, and biracial (black and white) couples lived along the Rio Grande. They provided food, guidance, and safe places to sleep.

Yet many mysteries remain. How organized was the Underground Railroad to Mexico? What happened to the former slaves and those who helped them? Some records have been destroyed by fire. Sites we know were part of the route sit abandoned. Escaped slaves took Spanish names. They married into Mexican families and migrated deeper into Mexico. They disappeared from the record . . . and from history.