December 13, 2014

OURstory: Underground Railroad (1780-1862)

I believe in the Nguzo Saba, especially the Umoja (unity) principle. Umoja calls for us to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

One of the best examples of 'umoja' in American history is the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad, a vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada. This network was not run by any single organization or person. It effectively moved hundreds of slaves northward each year -- according to one estimate, the South lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850.

An organized system to assist runaway slaves seems to have begun towards the end of the 18th century. In 1786 George Washington complained about how one of his runaway slaves was helped by a "society of Quakers, formed for such purposes." The system grew, and around 1831 it was dubbed "The Underground Railroad," after the then emerging steam railroads. The system even used terms used in railroading: the homes and businesses where fugitives would rest and eat were called "stations" and "depots" and were run by "stationmasters," those who contributed money or goods were "stockholders," and the "conductor" was responsible for moving fugitives from one station to the next.

For the slave, running away to the North was anything but easy. After the initial escape for a slaveholde, the fugitives would move at night. They would generally travel between 10 and 20 miles to the next station, where they would rest and eat, hiding in barns and other out-of-the-way places. While they waited, a message would be sent to the next station to alert its stationmaster.

The Underground Railroad had many notable participants, including John Fairfield in Ohio, the son of a slaveholding family, who made many daring rescues, Levi Coffin, a Quaker who assisted more than 3,000 slaves, and Harriet Tubman, who made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom.

Ohio was crucial to the Underground Railroad saga. It has been estimated that 40,000 runaway slaves escaped to Canadian freedom through Ohio. A secret and successful network of over 700 safehouses and “depots” waited for those fugitives fortunate enough to make it to—and across—the Ohio River.

Although a “free state,” a designation indicating only that its residents could not own slaves, Ohio was a distinctly dangerous host to the escapees. Bounty hunters criss-crossed the state. Pro-slavery factions existed in many villages and cities. The Ohio Black Laws rewarded those who turned in or reported runaways. Lake Erie was a formidable obstacle to attaining Canadian freedom. Vigilante groups scoured the state, targeting all African-Americans. Law officers were aggressive, particularly following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

I live in greater Cincinnati area. We are home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Museum. I hope that all villagers have a chance to visit this remarkable museum.

Also, the Cincinnati Museum Center hosted a world-class exhibit, America I AM: The African American Imprint in 2010. The Center for African American Decorative Arts lent them a book simply entitled The Underground Railroad to be displayed in the Underground Railroad gallery at the America I AM exhibit. In 1852, a group of Philadelphia abolitionists formed a General Vigilance Committee to assist escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad. William Still was part of this group and kept detailed records of the runaway slaves he encountered. First published in 1872, this book is used to this day in genealogy searches. Many of the stories include references to Cincinnati and the Ohio River.

What are your thoughts about the Underground Railroad?


Ned Hamson said...

I too, live in Cincinnati area - Mt. Healthy. I have always though it ironic that museum is here in Cincinnati, since those on the "railroad" were advised to avoid going through or stopping in Cincinnati. North of town and south of town were safe routes to get you to Xenia and then on up to Cleveland or over to Canada. The exhibits have been quite good, however, and worth a visit. The current exhibit of the history lynchings is a must see and may well help you understand the Billy Holiday and Nina Simone song "Strange Fruit."

Unknown said...

Ned - Thank you very much for your visit ... and more importantly for your taking time to share your comment. So few blog readers share comments any longer.

Anyhow, I haven't seen the lynching exhibit at the NURFC. I will try to get down there in the next few days to see it. I shared a blog post on lynchings awhile ago.

SerenityLife said...

Villager !

I love it as always. Did you know that Bob Johnson (co-founder) of BET gave $3 million to the National Underground Railroad Freedom museum?! I was so impressed that I wrote him to thank him. Do you know that he wrote me back in appreciation!

See here:

Thanks again for always being so encouraging and sharing with all of us! xoxox

Unknown said...

SerenityLife - It is nice to see that Bob Johnson replied to your letter ... even nicer that you took the time to express your appreciation to him for the donation back in 2004.

Bob Johnson has done some things (IMHO) that put him in position to be working against the Black community. However, he is a kazillionaire ... so I'm glad he is donating money to Black museums.