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Underground Railroad in Oberlin

Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a widespread, loosely knit organized effort to assist escaping slaves from the south, north into Canada or other areas of the country where they would be safe from bounty hunters. It was most active between the 1830s and 1861 when the War Between the States or more commonly called today, the Civil War, broke out.

Ohio had many Underground Railroad routes that crisscrossed the state. Even though Ohio was a non-slave state, it was against the law in northern states, the free states, to aide escaping slaves or to harbor them. In 1793 the Continental Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law that applied to all states and territories.

In 1850 a revised Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress. That law tried to reinforce the original act by forcing Federal Marshals anywhere, to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave, anyone suspected of helping a runaway slave, and, officers who captured runaway slaves were given a bonus for their efforts.

The only requirement for the Federal Marshals to act was a sworn affidavit submitted by the slave's owner. Once a suspected runaway was captured by Federal Marshals, the suspected runaway had no further rights. They could not appeal to a court because black slaves had no right to trial or the presentation of evidence. They could not defend themselves legally against the warrant. This meant that even free blacks could be arrested as suspected runaways just on the say-so of a slave owner.

Despite this law's broad strokes, it helped strengthen the abolitionist movement in the north, because now, they were at risk legally for aiding runaways. They could be charged and imprisoned (up to 6 months) for this aid. They could also be fined (up to $1000 per incident) for their aid.

This was the law of the land, yet many chose to defy the law in aiding runaways. In fact, this law, that many people felt exceeded the power of the federal government, brought more supporters to the anti-slavery movement, and more people willing to put themselves at risk in helping runaway slaves.

All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"

Declaration of Independence

Ohio's position on slavery and African-Americans

Many blacks won their freedom in the Revolutionary War either by serving on the side of the Americans, or by the British that freed them. Some of these free blacks, moved to Ohio to escape the strong segregation and discrimination policies found on the east coast. However, even in Ohio, their plight was not easy.

The Ohio state constitution adopted in 1802, deprived blacks of the right to vote, to hold public office, and to testify against whites in court. In time, Ohio's position became even harsher when laws were passed saying that blacks could not live in Ohio without a certificate proving their free status. They even had to post a $500 bond "to pay for their support in case of want."

Blacks were prohibited from joining the state militia, were excluded from serving on juries and were not allowed admittance to state poorhouses, insane asylums, and other institutions. Some of these laws were not strictly enforced, or it would have been virtually impossible for any African American to emigrate to Ohio.

In the early 1800s Ohio was being settled by 2 basic cultures: those coming from New England, and those coming from Virginia and other southern states. In New England, slavery had long ago been abolished, and quite the opposite held true for the southern states. These 2 different cultures led to clashes with regards to African Americans and the issue of slavery in Ohio. Even in rural areas, one town might be pro slavery and the one just down the road a few miles would be a stronghold of anti-slavery sentiment.

A third conflict arose from law-abiding citizens that may have opposed the issue of slavery, but so revered the letter of the law, that they felt obligated to turn in runaway slaves because the law required it.

In the south, slavery had become a way of life for plantation owners. Slaves were needed for the daily operation of these large estates. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves. At this time in our country's history, the European mind-set was that whites were superior to all other races. This is why we had so many problems with the Native American's that were living here for so long.

This superior mentality meant to the whites, that they were destined by God to rule over all the land and animals. And to them, Native Americans and blacks were considered something less than human and that whites therefore were superior to them. Even in the northern states including Ohio, these views were widely held.

The difference between the North and South is that the South felt it was okay to own these creatures just as it was ok to own a mule and have that animal do work. The North found this practice in-human, even if many didn't consider those people being enslaved as being human. It would take decades before blacks would be accepted as human beings across the nation. It would take even longer for Native Americans to be recognized as anything more than savages.

The Civil War

The Civil War was fought not for the freedom of the slaves, but for the right of the states to decide whether or not they could own slaves. Late in the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation that essentially freed the slaves, that Presidential order did not apply to slave owning states that had remained in the Union.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves at the time, it did change the character of the Civil War. Prior to this declaration, the War had been about keeping the United States together as a Union. The Federal government sent military force against those states who decided they no longer wanted to be a part of the Union, and that each state should decide its own direction.

The elimination of slavery came about after the Civil War when the U.S. Congress ratified the 13th Amendment. The acceptance of blacks as being equal human beings would take much longer.

Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, there were many people who felt it was their duty to help escaping slaves. These groups were primarily religious organizations (these groups were primarily either Quakers, Presbyterians or Methodists) and those that opposed slavery were called Abolitionists. It was the Abolitionists that formed the backbone of safe houses that dotted Ohio, from the Ohio River all the way north to Lake Erie.

So Ohio had this mix of Abolitionists made up primarily of New England settlers, and settlers from the South that were still sympathetic to the commonly held view that it was the state's right to decide whether slavery was permissible or not. This contradiction made it difficult to transport escaping slaves through the state. Thus the reason for creating a secretive network of routes and havens, that became known as the Underground Railroad and Ohio was a focal point in that movement.