150 Year-Old Secrets: Ohio's Legacy of the Underground Railroad

By Rodriguez, Zina L. | The New Crisis, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

150 Year-Old Secrets: Ohio's Legacy of the Underground Railroad


Rodriguez, Zina L., The New Crisis


...I heard the cry of hounds... With a halloo, I piled the crowd into the boat, only to find it so small it would not carry all of us. Two men were left on the bank. . .

Those words belonged to John P. Parker, a former Kentucky slave and one of Ohio's "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. Parker risked his life ferrying fugitive slaves across the Ohio River, often with slave owners at his heels.

Parker's handwritten journal was recently discovered in a Duke University library, and it has now been published as "His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor of the Underground Railroad" (W.W. Norton & Co.). Parker is one of the many voices of ex-slaves and abolitionists who were part of the complex and covert system of the Underground Railroad. His voice and many other Ohio Railroad participants are just gaining recognition as intrepid leaders who contributed to freedom for all those in bondage.

The Underground Railroad, of course, was neither underground nor a railroad. It was a national clandestine network of abolitionists and ex-slaves who bound together against the atrocity of slavery. The starting date of the railroad is unclear, since many of its participants had to retain a high level of secrecy to protect both slaves and abolitionists. It is known, however, that the railroad's activity peaked during the early 19th Century and lasted until the ratification in 1864 of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which made slavery illegal in the United States.

Ironically, the name of the Underground Railroad was coined by a slave owner who was in pursuit of a fugitive slave. Tice Davis had fled across the Ohio River from the inhumane conditions of a Kentucky plantation and suddenly disappeared. Bewildered, the owner wondered if Davis had "gone off on some underground road." Little did the owner know that Davis had taken refuge in a safe house, later known as a "station," in the home of a white abolitionist in Ripley, Ohio. From that point on, the Underground Railroad was marked by coded railroad jargon. It was used by passengers" (fugitive slaves), "conductors" (abolitionists who helped fugitives reach free states), and "stations" (safe homes where slaves could hide).

Ohio played a key role in helping fugitive slaves to freedom, and over 450 railroad "stations" have been identified in Ohio. Some of these homes have been proclaimed national historic sites or have been converted to museums.

The Ohio River had about 23 railroad entry points into the free state of Ohio. Ohio became a frequent destination because it was possible to gain passage from there to Canada if necessary. In addition, Ohio had a large population of staunch abolitionists dedicated to caring for fugitive slaves. Slaves from as far south as Alabama walked hundreds of miles to cross the Ohio River in hopes of permanently gaining their freedom. Conductors did not simply help the slaves cross the river under the cover of night. Conductors ventured into Kentucky, Virginia, and other slave states to help the slaves flee plantations.

One such conductor was Levi Coffin, who once organized 28 fugitives into a false funeral procession across the Ohio River. Hidden in carriages and wagons, the slaves managed to pass right by the very men who were looking for them. Conductors sometimes posed as slave buyers. Abolitionist organizations, such as "The Order of the Twelve," appeared during the 19th Century. This secret society based in Ironton, Ohio, was an organization of black abolitionists who helped hundreds of slaves gain their freedom. Secrecy and deception were key elements in smuggling slaves into Ohio.

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