The stories of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati remain a dominant and important piece of history in Ohio.
Who founded the Underground Railroad?
Who was part of the Underground Railroad?
What was Ohio’s role in the Underground Railroad?
Ordinarily, such a topic as the activities and actions of fugitive African Americans as well as the origins, development, and legacy of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati and surrounding areas would be related to the distant past or just completely ignored. However, with the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2004, greatly as a testament to the emergence and importance of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, the history of the Underground Railroad remains a dominant and important image in the minds and hearts of thousands of Americans today. There are thousands of accounts that have survived over the centuries, some of which we will share below.
The Story of John P. Parker
On a cloudy night in 1842, John P. Parker slowly boarded a ship that was docked in the harbor in New Orleans, Louisiana. Parker knew that his days as an enslaved African American were numbered. It was just a matter of time, at least in his mind, before he would gain his freedom. This objective had fostered in his mind for many years.
He also had tried to escape several times, but the result was a failure. However, this time would be different. After hiding on the vessel for several hours, the ship finally began to move out of the harbor and set sail for up the Mississippi River. Along the way, young John enjoyed the scenery as if he was a passenger on an ocean cruise to the Caribbean Islands. The reality was that this was merely the latest attempt at gaining freedom by Parker, which eventually brought him to New Albany, Indiana, then to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually to Ripley, Ohio. Once in Ripley, he along with the white radical, abolitionist Reverend John Rankin, began several decades of “illegal” activities that helped thousands of enslaved African Americans gain their freedom. During one such venture, Parker recalled his journey out of slavery by describing how he hid among a pile of wood on a New Orleans dock until he was able to slowly get on board a large ship that helped him obtain his destiny of freedom.
The Story of Henry Bibb
Several years earlier, in 1835, Henry Bibb (known as “Walton” to his owner) made his first escape attempt when he was hired out to Mr. Vires, who lived on a nearby farm in Newcastle, Kentucky. Although he was hoping to reach Canada with great ease, Bibb was captured in less than twenty-four hours, whipped and placed in isolation. However, determined to obtain his freedom, Bibb planned and executed another escape attempt, but the same result took place. He was recaptured rather quickly and whipped once again.
The determination of Bibb to ultimately gain his freedom was temporarily halted when he began to date and subsequently married an enslaved African American woman named Malinda, who resided in a nearby plantation in Oldham, County, Kentucky. Once married, Bibb soon became a father. However, the hardship of being a husband and father whose wife and child was owned by a white man soon reignited Bibb’s aspiration to escape once again. As a result, and with a promise to his wife to return to them after he was completely free, Bibb absconded on Christmas Day in 1837.
When he had reached Cincinnati, Ohio, with the help several local African Americans, Bibb was introduced to a group of abolitionists who helped him travel further north through the Underground Railroad of Cincinnati to Perrysburg, Ohio. Bibb stayed in Perrysburg several months before he eventually headed back to Kentucky to free his wife and child. When he reached them, Bibb developed a plan to help them escape by steamship once that reached the Ohio River. Unfortunately, they failed to reach the rendezvous point on time, and thus Bibb was recaptured by a slave catcher who had been posing as a local abolitionist and subsequently shipped to Louisville, Kentucky to be sold. However, Bibb managed to once again escape from his captor. After his escape, Bibb traveled to central Ohio, but several years later, in 1839, he returned to Kentucky once again to try to free his wife and child. But, again, he was recaptured and shipped to Louisville. But this time his family was shipped with him to keep him from another escape attempt.
Furthermore, several months later, Bibb and his family, along with several hundred enslaved African Americans, were placed on a steamship that left Louisville, bound for Vicksburg, Tennessee and eventually New Orleans, Louisiana. Once in New Orleans, in 1840, Bibb and his family were separated, with his wife and daughter being sold to local gamblers and Bibb being purchased by a local Native American. However, the next year, in 1841, Bibb escaped from the Native American, for good this time, traveled to the Mississippi River, and then secretly climbed aboard a steamboat that was on route to Portsmouth, Ohio.
By the late 1840s, Bibb had come to terms that he would never see first his wife and child again. As a result, he remarried in 1848 and over time became an ardent African American abolitionist in several New England and Middle Atlantic states. As an abolitionist, to tell his story to a wider audience, in 1849 Bibb published his autobiography titled Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself. The next year, in 1849, he and his new wife published the first African American newspaper in Canada titled Voice of the Fugitive.
The Story of Delia Webster and Calvin Fairbanks
During this same decade, several individuals engaged in numerous Underground Railroad activities in other parts of the Bluegrass state. For example, Delia Webster and Calvin Fairbanks emerged as fiery abolitionists as well as Underground Railroad activists. Webster was born in Vermont, in 1817, studied briefly at Oberlin College, in Ohio, and moved to Kentucky in 1842, while Fairbanks was born in New York, in 1816, studied for several years at Oberlin College, and eventually became a Methodist minister. Although Webster and Fairbanks went to Oberlin, they did not know each other until their Underground Railroad activities crossed paths in Kentucky.
Specifically, in 1844 Fairbanks traveled to Kentucky to help an enslaved African American family escape the system of human bondage that he had heard about while he was studying at Oberlin. In need of some additional funds for the venture, Fairbank solicited funds and the assistance of Webster. At the same time, Webster introduced Fairbank to Lewis Hayden, an enslaved African American waiter who desired to gain his freedom in any way necessary. Eventually, Fairbanks and Webster did help Hayden obtain his freedom via the Underground Railroad.
However, upon hearing about the successful escape of Hayden, numerous slave catchers and law enforcement officers began to monitor the activities of Fairbanks and Webster, which eventually led to their arrest in 1844 as they were on route to Lexington, Kentucky. Convicted of helping hundreds of enslaved African Americans obtain their freedom using the Underground Railroad, both individuals were indicted in a Fayette Circuit Court and sentenced to five and two years in jail respectively. However, outraged by the jailing of a woman, on 24 February 1845, Governor William Owsley pardoned Webster. However, Fairbanks served most of his five-year term, until Governor John Crittenden pardoned him on 28 August 1849.
The Story of the Bell Family
During this same period, in southeastern Indiana, a group of individuals spent many years helping enslaved African Americans gain their freedom. More specifically, the Bell family, Virginia born whites from Brandenburg, Kentucky, was suspected by residents of being abolitionists and thus aiding hundreds of enslaved African Americans gain their freedom. For example, on a rainy day in 1857, Charles Bell, one of his sons, along with a former enslaved African American named Oswald Wright, aided a group of runaway Black American in the quest for freedom, weaving themselves in the history of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati.
The journeys, activities, and comments of individuals like Parker, Henry Bibb, Delia Webster, Calvin Fairbanks, and the Bells are just a few examples of the experiences of thousands of enslaved Black Americans who decided to emancipate themselves from the horrible system of human bondage. The path to freedom was hard, complex, long, mysterious, terrifying, exciting, dangerous, and exalting. But, in the end, it was worth it for those who were willing to try to escape.
This quest for freedom became more complicated after the American Revolution when numerous states enacted harsher proslavery laws and the United States Constitution was ratified with a provision that protected the institution of enslavement from any interference from the federal government. Furthermore, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 not only gave slaveholders the right and ability to pursue and recapture runaway African Americans anywhere in the United States, but these laws also made it a crime for anyone who assisted enslaved persons of color in any escape activities. But despite the enactment of these decrees, many people, African Americans and non-African Americans, rich and poor, Christians and non-Christians, women and men, consistently broke the law to assist Black Americans in their quest for freedom from the institution of enslavement.
The most common vision that many people have retained about this topic and period in American history is of one, two, three, or four fugitive enslaved persons of color being assisted in their escape plans by one or two well-meaning, progressive whites, especially Quakers, to ultimately gain freedom. Without question, such episodes did occur, but there is an abundance of historical evidence that exists which demonstrates that hundreds of Free Black Americans and former enslaved African Americans, especially in Cincinnati, who aided numerous enslaved African Americans in their freedom journey.
For example, John Mercer Langston, born free in 1829, in Louisa, County, Virginia, was the youngest child of four children. His father, Ralph Quarles, was a wealthy white planter and slaveholder, while his mother, Lucy Langston, was an emancipated enslaved person of Indian and African descent. When he turned fourteen, the young Langston enrolled in Oberlin College, in Ohio, where he became an outstanding debater. Several years later, in 1849, he became the fifth African American male to graduate from Oberlin. Inspired by some elderly African American Cincinnatians, Langston moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and subsequently decided to get involved in the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati during the 1830s and 1840s with the establishment of safe-houses throughout the city.
Another individual, whose journey would end up in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was Eliza Harris. As many scholars have noted, on a cold blustery winter day in 1838, upon hearing that her owner, John G. Bacon, who lived in Mason County, Kentucky, was experiencing some financial troubles. This which usually meant the selling of any enslaved African American, so Eliza Harris decided to act on a plan that she had developed only in her mind to escape with her two-year-old son across the river in Ohio and eventually to Canada.
Thus, with no detailed planning or no other type of preparation Harris slipped out for some air on one cold night with her son and quickly traveled to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Upon her arrival, finding that the River had been frozen to the point that on it were large broken pieces of ice, Harris jumped from ice plate to ice plate with her son tied to her back, until she reached the other side of the Ohio River. Once in Ohio, she traveled to the home of Reverend John Rankin, who lived in Ripley, Ohio. In Ripley, Reverend Rankin and Harris developed a detailed plan for Eliza and her son to reach Canada with very little resistance.
Upon the completion of the plan, and after Harris had recovered from their horrible and deadly escape and traveling ordeal, she journeyed to Cincinnati, Ohio then to Newport, Indiana. In Newport, with the help of the well-known Underground Railroad leader Levi Coffin, Harris went to Sandusky, Ohio and eventually traveled to Canada. Although very little details are known about her experience in Canada, in 1854, during a visit to a very populated Free African American community in Western Canada, the Coffin family accidentally ran into Harris and her son. On that day, the individuals expressed much greetings and happiness as they embraced each other.
The Underground Railroad in Cincinnati
In the end, this is only a snapshot of the number of important individuals who played an important role in the origin, development, and operation of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati and the surrounding region. Many of these stories are told at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in addition to it housing many artifacts of significance to the Underground Railroad.
In addition to these impactful stories, it is hard to dispute the depiction of scholars such as the late J. Blaine Hudson, Spencer Crew, and Prince Brown, who have depicted the Underground Railroad as the first multiracial, multi-class, multi-ethnic human rights movement in the United States that was dominated by a person of African descent.
To learn more about the history of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Eric R. Jackson, Ph.D.
Professor of History – Director, Black Studies Program
Northern Kentucky University
Phone – 859.572.6146
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