How Hispanics helped slaves escape to Mexico on the Underground Railroad

This Hispanic Heritage month we’re highlighting the history of Latinos and their part in helping slaves escape. 

When we think of the history of slavery in Texas we think of Juneteenth in Galveston, but I met up with a couple of historians who say the history begins even further South because decades before Juneteenth, Hispanics were helping enslaved black people escape to Mexico. 

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"The Mexican government welcomed fugitive slaves," explains Dr. Juan Galvan, a Professor of History at Lone Star College.

Galvan along with fellow Historian Samuel Collins III showed me documents dating back to before the 1800’s in The Galveston and Texas History Center. The work gives a new outlook on the Underground Railroad which most equate to the system that helped slaves escape North to freedom.

"We often think about Canada, but enslaved people in Texas actually ran South to Mexico because Mexico had outlawed slavery," Collins explains.

Although, not everyone describes the help Hispanics gave as work on The Railroad because according to Dr. Galvan, "when you say Underground Railroad that implies a network as sophisticated as the one to Canada." He says research shows Hispanic abolitionists were well organized as many came together to help thousands of enslaved Black people in Texas make it to freedom in Mexico.

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"There were many people involved for different reasons. There were many marriages between Mexican men and African American enslaved women. Poor Mexican Americans frequently worked side by side with enslaved African Americans in cotton fields and so in many cases they became close friends," explains Dr. Galvan. 

According to Collins, part of the story is that people were not just waiting to be rescued. He stated that some slaves saved for years to pay to be taken to Mexico.

"Once they made it to Mexico they became members of the community and the community rallied together to defend them whenever slave catchers arrived. In some cases, they killed the slave catchers," said Dr. Galvan.

He showed me a document that said, "'A negro man named Joe belonging to the late William Barret Travis who was killed at the Alamo is now a fugitive'. The Travis family wanted him back. So this was written, ‘(Joe) took off with him a Mexican and two horses, saddles and bridles. This Negro was in the Alamo with his master when he was taken’. The reward was $50 for his return".


When Texas was still Mexican territory it was illegal to have slaves, so slave owners began drafting contracts. The historians showed me a few contracts that are now archived at The Galveston and Texas History Center. The papers would claim the people listed, including some as young as three-years-old, agreed to work for them for life. One "contract" had written in it, "For the term of 99 years to learn the art and mystery of farming and planting."

That's when friends to the South stepped in. Dr. Galvan shared, "In 1857, the government of Mexico amends the Constitution declaring that any former slave who steps on Mexican territory is now a Mexican citizen and therefore a free person."

Many escaped slaves made good lives in Mexico. They arrive to Mexico where they are free and like the Black Seminoles, they're able to set up colonies and start businesses, Collins explained.

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A couple of Sam Houston’s former slaves are documented as succeeding in Mexico. "One of them became a barber and opened a barber shop in Matamoros, Mexico. The other one became an officer in the Mexican Army," Dr. Galvan said.

The historians are encouraging you to head to the library where there are a number of the books available on the topic and learn the information for yourself. 

Collins says history is like a salad. "There are the lettuce and tomatoes. These are stories we hear all the time of founding fathers and early settlers but that 'history salad' includes croutons, bacon bits, olives, pickles and these are the other ingredients to the story".