The Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses and hiding places that helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom in Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere outside of the United States.
White and African-American "conductors" served as guides from place to place for fugitives from slavery. It remains unclear when the Underground Railroad began, but members of the Society of Friends, who were also known as the Quakers, were actively assisting fugitive slaves as early as the 1780s. Some people living in Ohio began to help fugitive slaves by the 1810s.
Most Northern states had passed laws outlawing slavery during the late 1700s. Nevertheless, the United States Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 permitted slave owners to reclaim fugitive slaves, even if the African Americans had moved to a free state. To truly gain their freedom, African Americans had to leave the United States. As a result, some Underground Railroad stops existed throughout Ohio and other free states and provided fugitive slaves with safe places to hide on their way to Canada. Although slavery was illegal in Ohio, some people still opposed the ending of slavery. These people feared that former slaves would move to the state, take jobs away from the white population, and demand equal rights with whites. Many of these people vehemently opposed the Underground Railroad. Some people attacked conductors. Other people tried to return fugitives from slavery to their owners in hopes of collecting rewards.
Several prominent abolitionists were from Ohio and they played a vital role in the Underground Railroad. Beginning in the late 1840s, Levi Coffin, a resident of Cincinnati, helped more than three thousand slaves escape from their masters and gain their freedom in Canada. Coffin's work caused his fellow abolitionists to nickname him the "president of the Underground Railroad." In Ripley, Presbyterian minister John Rankin served as a conductor and opened his home to African Americans seeking freedom. His home stood on a three hundred-foot high hill that overlooked the Ohio River. Rankin would signal fugitive slaves in Kentucky with a lantern and let them know when it was safe for them to cross the Ohio River. He provided the fugitive slaves with shelter and kept them hidden until it was safe to travel further north. John Parker, Rankin's neighbor, brought hundreds of fugitives from slavery across the Ohio River in a boat. These men and many other people risked their lives to assist African Americans in their flight to freedom.
Once they arrived in Ohio, some fugitive slaves decided to remain in the state. They usually settled in neighborhoods with other African Americans. Many fugitive slaves continued on to Canada. At least eight cities, including Ashtabula, Painesville, Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, Huron, Lorain, and Conneaut, along Lake Erie served as starting points to transport the fugitives from slavery to freedom in Canada. Historian Wilbur Siebert believes approximately three thousand miles of Underground Railroad trails existed in Ohio.
It remains unclear exactly how the Underground Railroad acquired its name. One account involves Ohio. In 1831, Tice Davids, a fugitive slave, fled from his owner in Kentucky. Davids swam across the Ohio River with his owner in close pursuit in a boat. Davids reached shore a few minutes before his owner. After landing his boat, the owner could not find his slave. The owner said that Davids "must have gone off on an underground road."
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- Siebert, Wilbur Henry. The Underground Railroad in Ohio. Arthur W. McGraw, 1993.
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- Baumann, Roland M. The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College, 2003.
- Coffin, Levi, and William Still. Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.