I'm not talking about your mother or father, but someone you don't even know. A complete stranger with whom you might exchange only a few words and never see again... Could you do it?
I asked myself that question over and over as I learned about the brave people who organized the Underground Railroad, perhaps the most dramatic protest action against slavery in the history of the United States. During the first half of the 1800s, thousands risked their own lives to help enslaved African-Americans escape to the northern states and to Canada. Together, they formed a movement known as the Underground Railroad, though it was neither under the ground nor a railroad.
The name, I found out, originated when an enslaved runaway, Tice Davids, fled from Kentucky and took refuge with an abolitionist in Ripley, Ohio. Determined to retrieve his property, the owner chased Davids to the Ohio River, but Davids suddenly disappeared without a trace, leaving his owner confused and wondering if he had "gone off on some underground road."
Simply put, the Underground Railroad was an informal network of escape routes that started in the South, continued on through the North and eventually ended in Canada. People who guided slaves, or "passengers," from one "station" to another were called "conductors." Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous conductors, became known as "Moses" to her people when she made 19 trips to the South and helped deliver at least 300 passengers to safety. Tubman was a former slave herself and was able to escape from Eastern Maryland in 1849.
People who manned the stations were known as "operators." Almost anything could be a station - a house, barn, church or cellar. There, passengers received food, clothing, money, shelter and directions to another station. Some operators notified passengers of the stations through signals, such as a brightly lit candle in a window or a lantern placed in the front yard.
One of the most famous operators was John Rankin from Ripley, Ohio (the same man who hid Tice Davids from his owner). He was a white Presbyterian minister who detested slavery with a passion and spent his entire life fighting it. John's house sat atop a hill that overlooked the entire town of Ripley, and could easily be seen from the other side of the Ohio River - the Kentucky side, that is, where slavery was legal. Runaway slaves from Kentucky who managed to reach the banks of the Ohio River could spot John's house. They knew that he'd provide shelter, food and safety, if only they could make the crossing.
One of these runaways was Eliza. Does that name ring a bell? It should if you've read the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. If you haven't yet, please do. Its depiction of slavery - with all its horrors and cruelties - shook the country and made the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, loved in the North and hated in the South. The most famous scene in the book depicts a barefoot Eliza crossing the partially frozen Ohio River with her child in her arms, leaping from one patch of ice to another, as she tries to escape a cruel slave trader.
Slave owners also wanted Parker dead or alive, and went so far as to offer $1000 for his capture. He risked his life every time he crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and brought men, women and children back with him to safety.
During my visit to Ripley, I visited the Rankin and Parker houses, walked alongside the Ohio River, admired the scenery and took a moment to look over at the banks of the Kentucky side, all the while trying to imagine what it would be like to stand there, fighting to get across, determined to be free. For the runaways of the 1800s, Ripley meant freedom. It meant safety. And it meant a new beginning.
And what about today? Was Ripley still considered a haven for African-Americans? How had things changed? How had they stayed the same?
Change takes time, of course. And much has changed since Eliza had to scramble through the icy Ohio River to reach safety. Ripley continues to be a beautiful and inviting place. Perhaps, in time, its past will inspire its future, making it once again, a safe haven for people of all colors and races.
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