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Know Ohio: The Underground Railroad

In this installment of Know Ohio, Zaria tells us about the role Ohio played in the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a secret network aiding enslaved people escaping to freedom, and Ohio played a crucial role in this chapter of American history.

Historians estimate that nearly half of all escaped enslaved people made their way through Ohio.

Our state's strategic location and the bravery of its agents, conductors, and escapees contributed to its status as one of the most successful underground railroad states.

Read the script:

When we think of Ohio, we might think of our sports teams, our rollercoasters, our corn fields. But starting all the way back in 1815, Ohio represented a land of hope for escaped slaves on their journey to freedom.

Historians estimate that between 40 and 50 thousand enslaved Americans escaped through Ohio. That’s almost 50% of the total estimated enslaved people who did escape before the Civil War.

All thanks to a system called the Underground Railroad.

Despite the name, the Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad. It was a secret network of trails, safehouses, and guides that helped escaped slaves on their journey north to Canada, where slavery was banned.

It was illegal to help escaped slaves, so the Underground Railroad used codenames. For example, the people who helped guide escaped slaves were called conductors and people who helped hide them were called agents.

And there were more than fifteen hundred agents and conductors in Ohio’s history, way more than any other state.

John Parker, who was formerly enslaved, was one of those conductors. He is famous for his double identity. By day, Parker ran a successful metal workshop and was an inventor. But by night, Parker would smuggle escaped slaves across the Ohio river from Kentucky. Some of his rescue missions happened right under slave catchers’ noses.

Once the escaped slaves got into his boat, John Parker would head for Minister Rankin, an agent whose house stood above the Ohio river in the town of Ripley. Minister Rankin would shine a lantern in his window to lead Parker and the escaped slaves across the river to safety.

Minister Rankin himself, was an important member of the Anti-Slavery Society in Ripley, where he was very open about his opinions. Over 2 thousand escaped slaves took shelter at Rankin’s house at one time or another while he was active.

Today, both John Parker and Minister Rankin’s houses in Ripley have been turned into museums. So you can visit and learn even more about their amazing stories.

But the town of Ripley was just one example of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. There were other major stations in Marion, Mansfield and Salem. Including more than twenty stations on the Ohio river, and many of these were connected by paths to other safehouses and agents all the way to Canada.

Because escaped slaves were in danger of being captured, they had to travel in extreme secrecy. During the day, they would hide wherever they could—sometimes in abandoned barns or the woods. And when it got dark, they would walk many miles to the next safehouse.

Escaped slaves would do whatever it took to gain their freedom. Some would hide in the bottom of an agent’s wagon, others would disguise themselves and travel in broad daylight. One man even packaged himself into a box and mailed himself to safety.

Ohio became one of the most successful Underground Railroad states. Of course geography had a lot to do with it; Ohio being on Lake Erie and being a central location on Mason-Dixon line.

But it is important to remember the courage of the agents, conductors, and escaped slaves in Ohio who all played a crucial role.

Natalia Garcia is a digital producer for the education team at Ideastream Public Media.
Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.