The Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses and hiding places that helped freedom seekers along their journey 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 freedom seekers. 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 freedom seekers as early as the 1780s. Some people living in Ohio began to help freedom seekers by the 1810s.
Most Northern states had passed laws outlawing slavery during the late 1700s. Nevertheless, the United States Constitution, the Freedom seeker Law of 1793, and the Freedom seeker Law of 1850 permitted slave owners to reclaim freedom seekers, even if they 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 freedom seekers 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 freedom seekers 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 freedom seekers in Kentucky with a lantern and let them know when it was safe for them to cross the Ohio River. He provided the freedom seekers 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 freedom seekers decided to remain in the state. They usually settled in neighborhoods with other African Americans. Many freedom seekers continued on to Canada. At least eight cities along Lake Erie, including Ashtabula, Painesville, Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, Huron, Lorain, and Conneaut, along served as starting points to transport the freedom seekers to Canada. Historian Wilbur Siebert believed 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, a freedom seeker named Tice Davids fled from his slave holder in Kentucky. Davids swam across the Ohio River with his holder in close pursuit in a boat. Davids reached shore a few minutes before him. After landing his boat, the holder could not find Davids, and said he "must have gone off on an underground road."
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- Coffin, Levi, and William Still. Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2004.