Slavery And The Underground Railroad
A brief overview of slavery's Underground Railroad, a cooperative effort to assist slaves seeking freedom in the North.
The Underground Railroad refers not to a train, but a cooperative effort, at times spontaneous, at other times well-organized, to help individuals held in slavery in North America. Assisting those held in bondage to escape were abolitionists, Native Americans, sympathetic whites, and free African Americans, among others.
These stops to freedom were called Underground railroad stations because they resembled stops a train would make between destinations. "Underground" refers to the secret nature of the system. The escaped slaves were hid in homes or on the property of antislavery supporters.
According to the National Park Service, "this informal system arose as a loosely constructed network of escape routes that originated in the South, intertwined throughout the North, but also extended into western territories, Mexico and the Caribbean."
At its most dramatic, the Underground Railroad provides wonderful examples of selflessness, bravery and committment to human rights.
Life for a runaway slave was frought with dangers. The journey to freedom meant traveling only a few, perilous miles each night. Their only "map" was the North star and search parties were a continuous threat.
One stop on the underground railroad was the Levi Coffin House in Indiana. Levi and Catharine Coffin were legendary in assisting many former slaves escape to freedom in the North. Levi has been referred to as the President of the Underground Railroad. During the twenty years they lived in this Federal-style brick home, the Coffins helped more than 2000 slaves reach safety.
Once in the home, the presence of the slaves could be concealed for up to several weeks, allowing them to build strength to continue their journey. So successful was the Coffin sanctuary, while in Indiana, not a single slave failed to reach freedom. One of the individuals who hid in the Coffin home was "Eliza", whose story is told in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
In 1847, the Coffins moved to Cincinnati where they continued to assist the cause. Today the Coffin home in Indiana is a National Historic Landmark and is operated by the Levi Coffin House Association.
The city of Cincinnati played an important role during the time period of the Underground Railroad history. The Ohio river was the legal and symbolic dividing line between the slave South and the free North, so thousands of slaves sought the safety of the city.
In 1994 an effort was begun to establish the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. The center will celebrate the heritage and raise awareness of the ongoing struggle for freedom among men and woman around the world. It's hoped the center will open for visitors in the year 2003.