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Underground Railroad in Oberlin

Above is a monument created by Cameron Armstrong on the campus of Oberlin College that perhaps symbolizes the emergence of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. Oberlin was a key junction on the Underground Railroad that connected 5 different routes escaping slaves could have taken. No fugitive living in Oberlin was ever returned to bondage and has been referred to as "The Town that Started the Civil War."

Underground Railroad in Ohio

Although there were Underground Railroad networks throughout the country, even in the South, Ohio had the most active network of any other state with around 3000 miles of routes used by escaping runaways.

It's not clear when the term Underground Railroad was first used, but sometime around the 1830s is when actual railroads first started becoming a form of transportation in the country. Prior to that, information about railroads was not wide-spread. For example, the Internet was around in the 1980s, but most people were not familiar with this technology until much later.

There was of course, no railroad with the Underground Railroad, nor was it under ground. The term Underground was used because this activity of helping escaping slaves was against the law and therefore these activities had to be concealed. The term railroad was used because those people involved in the activities used terms commonly associated with railroads, to describe different aspects of their activities.

  • Slaves were called cargo or passengers.

  • Hiding places or safe houses were called stations

  • Guides leading the escaping slaves were called conductors

  • People helping the escaping slaves, but not guiding them, were called agents

  • People providing financial resources for these activities were called stockholders

As physical railroads became more widespread, using the same terminology associated with the railroad to the activities associated with the Underground Railroad allowed those actively involved to communicate openly without fear of being handed over to the authorities by someone overhearing the conversation. Of course, at the time, these code words were not known outside the network.

In some areas of the country different terminology was used such as "the freedom train" or "the gospel train." In Ohio, the Underground Railroad was the most commonly used term by the 1850s. It should be remembered that this network was not operated by any one individual or group, nor did everyone, even recognized Abolitionists, want to help escaping slaves. It was against not only state law, but also federal law to help an escaping slave. This made any attempt at escaping from slavery a dangerous proposition. Captured slaves were often mistreated by their captors, and when they were returned to the plantation and farms from where they had escaped, it was up to the plantation owner to administer further punishment which could be physical punishment, further confinement, or even being sold.

Ohio Anti-Slavery Society

The Ohio Anti-Slavery Society was formed by a number of like-minded individuals that opposed slavery. Following closely the structure of the American Anti-Slavery Society that was founded in 1833, the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1835 in Zanesville. The members of the society pledged to fight for the abolition of slavery and establishment of laws protecting African-Americans after they were freed.

Although Ohio was a free state, the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society was constantly under attack from local citizens wherever they met. Fear was a primary motivator among those opposing the society's goals and was often displayed in mobs that physically attacked the abolitionists. In 1836, the Ohio Anti-Slavery Convention was to hold its annual meeting in Granville, but the community refused to allow the meeting within the town's boundaries. When the convention was held in a barn outside of Granville, a mob formed that attacked the gathering abolitionists. John Rankin, one of the founders of the society, was attacked in Chillicothe after attending a meeting in Zanesville.

Their fear was a combination of racism, but not willing to admit that racism, they claimed that the escaping slaves from the south would take their jobs here in Ohio.

Freedom Center

Freedom Center in Cincinnati

Ohio is fortunate to have the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. This center provides a clearing house of information about the Underground Railroad and sponsors activities to help educate about those issues affecting African-Americans. The Center opened in 2004. The Freedom Center is made up of 3 buildings which symbolize the cornerstones of freedom: Courage, Cooperation, and Perseverance.

Freedom Center
50 E. Freedom Way, Cincinnati 45202
(513) 330-7500
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday 11a.m. - 5p.m.

The Journey

Ohio was split on the issue of slaves and few communities offered 100% safety. Oberlin was one of those towns where escaping slaves could feel safe. Located in north central Ohio, Oberlin became one of the major focal points for escaping slaves. Further south, a number of communities provided assistance including Columbus and Zanesville to the east, Mechanicsburg and Urbana to the west. In southern Ohio, there were even more smaller communities that provided safety in an extremely dangerous territory for the escaping slaves. Chillicothe, Xenia, Hillsboro, Springfield were notable communities assisting in this process.

The main entry point to Ohio was along the Ohio River and most notably was a small community called Ripley where John Rankin and a small group assisted 1000s of escaping slaves and started them on their journey on the Underground Railroad.

Journey's end

Escaping slaves were looking for a haven where they could live, with their families, without the fear of being chained in captivity. The only sure location was in Canada (and to some degree, Mexico), but these destinations were by no means easy. Once an escaped slave reached Canada's shores, they found life there extremely difficult, with no work, and strong segregation. After escaped slaves arrived in Canada, they would often return to Ohio where they could join already set up small enclaves of freed slaves in areas that were uninhabited and try to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

In Ohio there were 10 exit ports commonly used, with the most often used ports being Toledo, Sandusky, Cleveland, Fairport Harbor, and Ashtabula Harbor.

ABOVE: A slave's story told at the Fair at New Boston

African-Americans helped make the Underground Railroad work

The most important aspect of the Underground Railroad was the fact that escaping slaves made the railroad possible. If it wasn't for their courage, determination and ingenuity, the railroad would only have been a minor footnote in our country's history.

For most of the escaping slaves, they had to not only get away from their owner's land, but all the lands between them and the Ohio River as well as all the other entry points between the slave and free states.

It was the decision these people made to escape the tyranny of their oppressors that made them a special type of person. Not only did they have to avoid their former owners, but also the slave-catchers that scoured the countryside in search of runaways. These roaming bands of bounty hunters had become a big business that paid big dividends when a runaway could be captured and returned.

Hiding in the woods by daylight and traveling only at night, the escaping slaves had a difficult journey. Until they reached a border state, they had to provide their own sustenance. Then once they crossed the Ohio River, they had to make contact with someone they didn't know, and hope that they would provide them shelter and help them with their long journey that still laid ahead.

Winter was the most active time for escaping slaves. That was when the Ohio River regularly froze over and made it possible for the runaways to cross the river without a boat. It was also more dangerous. Just looking at the river itself and not counting the extremely cold temperatures, the ice was often more like large chunks of floating ice that required carefully footing, at night, to make it safely across the river.

Slaves that had already made the journey to freedom, would often go back repeatedly to help others, at great risk to their own safety and freedom.

Oberlin Resue Team

Paying the Price:

Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

John Price, a 17-year old fugitive slave from a Kentucky plantation owned by John Bacon, was living in Oberlin at the time of his arrest by 2 slave catchers and 2 federal marshals on September 13, 1858.

Knowing that trying to capture the young black man would not be easy in the town of Oberlin because of the well-known anti-slavery sentiments held by the townspeople, they hatched a plan to lure John Price out of the safety of Oberlin. They convinced Shakespeare Boynton, the son of a wealthy Oberlin landholder, to lead John Price out to a farm located west of Oberlin on the ruse of digging potatoes for wages. The slave catchers promised young Shakespeare $20 for his efforts. The ruse worked.

Upon his arrest, Price was taken to Wellington about 10 miles south of Oberlin, where the slave catchers and marshals planned to board a train heading south to take Price back to Kentucky. Soon after realizing what had happened, anti-slavery supporters in Oberlin became outraged and quickly assembled a group to attempt a rescue.

By late afternoon some 200 people from Oberlin and Wellington had surrounded the Wadsworth Hotel where Price was being held. After a standoff of several hours, the captors moved Price from the first room they were in, to another room on the next floor. That room had a window with a small balcony overlooking the town square. Several of those that had gathered outside the room had been allowed into the room where Price was being held along with the sheriff. The sheriff wanted to verify that the papers were in order. One of the men in the room shouted to the crowd below alerting the crowd which room they were holding Price. Then from outside, someone placed a ladder up to the room's window and a group of Oberlin citizens climbed in the window and another group came in through the door. Price was surrounded and ushered away from his captors, loaded on a wagon and taken back to the Oberlin home of Professor James Fairchild. Several days later Price continued on the Underground Railroad to Canada and was never heard from again.

Of the 200 that had gathered in Wellington, 37 of the crowd who helped rescue Price were indicted in Federal Court for their part in the event and 21 of them were arrested. They were sent to the Cuyahoga County Jail for about a month where they remained rather than posting bail. When the slave catchers and marshals were charged with kidnapping, both sides agreed to drop the charges. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case was influential in raising opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, one of the factors that lead to the Civil War.

Shown in the photograph above are: (standing from left to right) Sheriff David Wightman, jailer John B. Smith, Richard Winsor, Simeon Bushnell, David Watson, William E. Lincoln, Charles Langston, Wilson Bruce Evans, John H. Scott, Ansel W. Lyman, Henry E. Peck, and James M. Fitch. Seated are Ralph Plumb, James Bartlett, John Watson, and Henry Evans. Two of the men, Jacob B. Shipherd and Orindatus S.B. Wall, were released earlier due to a technicality with their indictments and are not pictured.

Additional information about the Underground Railroad