The stories of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati remain a dominant and essential 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 and 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, significantly as a testament to the emergence and importance of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, the history of the Underground Railroad remains a dominant and essential image in the minds and hearts of thousands of Americans today. Thousands of accounts 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 docked in New Orleans, Louisiana harbor. 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 gained his freedom. This objective had been fostered in his mind for many years.
He also 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 the Mississippi River.
Along the way, young John enjoyed the scenery like a passenger on an ocean cruise to the Caribbean Islands. The reality was that this was merely Parker’s latest attempt at gaining freedom, which eventually brought him to New Albany, Indiana, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Ripley, Ohio.
Once in Ripley, he and 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 could slowly 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 by Mr. Vires, who lived on a nearby farm in Newcastle, Kentucky. Although he hoped to reach Canada easily, Bibb was captured in less than twenty-four hours, whipped, and isolated.
However, determined to obtain his freedom, Bibb planned and executed another escape attempt, but the same result occurred. 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 were owned by a white man soon reignited Bibb’s aspiration to escape again. As a result, with a promise to his wife to return to them after he was completely free, Bibb absconded on Christmas Day in 1837.
When he reached Cincinnati, Ohio, with the help of 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 for several months before returning to Kentucky to free his wife and child. When he reached them, Bibb developed a plan to help them escape by steamship once that came to the Ohio River.
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Unfortunately, they failed to reach the rendezvous point on time. Thus Bibb was recaptured by a slave catcher 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 in 1839, he returned to Kentucky several years later to try to free his wife and child. But, again, he was recaptured and shipped to Louisville. But this time, his family was sent with him to keep him from another escape attempt.
Furthermore, several months later, Bibb, his family, and 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 sold to local gamblers and Bibb purchased by a local Native American. However, the following year, in 1841, Bibb escaped from the Native Americans for good this time, traveled to the Mississippi River, and then secretly climbed aboard a steamboat en route to Portsmouth, Ohio.
By the late 1840s, Bibb had come to terms with the fact that he would never see his first wife and child again. As a result, he remarried in 1848 and became an ardent African American abolitionist in several New England and Middle Atlantic states over time. As an abolitionist, to tell his story to a broader audience, in 1849, Bibb published his autobiography titled Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself. In 1849, he and his new wife published the first African American newspaper in Canada, Voice of the Fugitive.
The Story of Delia Webster and Calvin Fairbanks
During this 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 and Underground Railroad activists.
Webster was born in Vermont in 1817, studied briefly at Oberlin College in Ohio, and moved to Kentucky in 1842. 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 only knew each other once 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 he had heard about while 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 release via the Underground Railroad.
However, upon hearing about the successful escape of Hayden, numerous slave catchers and law enforcement officers began monitoring the activities of Fairbanks and Webster, eventually leading to their arrest in 1844 as they were en 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 February 24, 1845, Governor William Owsley pardoned Webster. However, Fairbanks served most of his five-year term until Governor John Crittenden pardoned him on August 28, 1849.
The Story of the Bell Family
During this same period, in southeastern Indiana, many 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 to 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 Americans 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 complicated, complex, lengthy, mysterious, terrifying, exciting, dangerous, and exalting. But, in the end, it was worth it for those willing to try to escape.
This quest for freedom became more complicated after the American Revolution when numerous states enacted harsher pro-slavery laws. The United States Constitution was ratified with a provision that protected the institution of enslavement from any interference from the federal government.
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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.
Despite enacting these decrees, many people, African Americans, 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 gain freedom ultimately.
Such episodes did not occur without question, but an abundance of historical evidence demonstrates that hundreds of Free Black Americans and former enslaved African Americans, especially in Cincinnati, aided numerous enslaved African Americans in their freedom journey.
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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. Subsequently, he decided to get involved in the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati during the 1830s and 1840s by establishing 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, windy winter day in 1838, upon hearing that her owner, John G. Bacon, who lived in Mason County, Kentucky, was experiencing some financial troubles.
This usually meant selling enslaved African Americans, so Eliza Harris decided to act on a plan she had developed only in her mind to escape with her two-year-old son across the river in Ohio and eventually to Canada.
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Thus, with no detailed planning or other 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 little resistance.
Upon completing 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 few 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 many greetings and happiness as they embraced each other.
The Underground Railroad in Cincinnati
In the end, this is only a snapshot of the influential individuals who played an essential 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 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 a person of African descent dominated.
To learn more about the history of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
About the Author
The Voice of Black Cincinnati is a media company designed to educate, recognize and create opportunities for African Americans. Want to find local news, events, job posting, scholarships, and a database of local Black-owned businesses? Visit our homepage, explore other articles, subscribe to our newsletter, like our Facebook page, join our Facebook group, and text VOBC to 513-270-3880.
Image provided by Eric R. Jackson