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The Underground Railroad's Code Language

The Text and Illustration for Uncle Tom's Cabin

Excerpts from Slave Narratives

The Harriet Tubman Home



All Aboard: The Underground Railroad Sets Off

This map shows all the routes of the Underground Railroad in Ohio
Would you risk your life for someone else?

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."

No, Davids hadn't disappeared down a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. Instead, he had been hidden by local abolitionists (so-called because they wanted to "abolish" slavery), who then helped him move further north, away from the laws that kept him in chains. According to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, it was illegal to help a runaway slave, but these abolitionists didn't care. For them, slavery was immoral and illegitimate and so were the laws that upheld it.

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.

John Rankin's house was a safe haven for runaway slaves
John said of his work with the Underground Railroad: "My house has been the door of freedom to many human beings." He knew that several people, such as slave bounty hunters and slave owners, wanted him dead. But even that didn't stop him from carrying on his work and saving as many runaways as he could. He estimated that he helped over 2,000 of them!

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.

Stephanie stands by the Ohio River where Eliza made her crossing
Well, that really happened! And luckily for Eliza, John Rankin was there to help. He not only took her in then, but also assisted her when months later, she came back from Canada and rescued her five children who'd remained behind. Harriet heard Eliza's story when she was visiting Ripley and included it in her book.

Harriet Beecher Stowe stayed in this house when she visited Ripley>
Although John Rankin was the most famous Railroad operator in Ripley, he was not alone. He worked closely with John Parker, a former slave from Alabama who had bought his freedom and moved to Ripley to set up an iron foundry. By day, he worked in the foundry and by night, he crossed the Ohio River, raiding plantations and bringing slaves to Ohio through the Underground Railroad.

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.

We're outside Parker's house and feeling inspired!
Wow. It's hard to fully grasp the implications of the actions of people such as John Parker, John Rankin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman. They stood up, day after day, to an institution that went against all they believed in. They truly risked their lives so that others could have their freedom. Would I be able to do that? I'm not sure.

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?

Visiting Rankin's house was a treat for both Stephanie and me
The answers to these questions may be impossible to answer, but I decided to try. I asked a friendly-looking African-American couple I met at the public library how they felt about living in a town that played such a crucial role in history. Caroline said she was glad to have been raised in an area where slaves were safe. Ripley, in her opinion, is a nice and peaceful town. And it continues to be safe, even to this day. Her husband, Lee, agreed, but also alluded to the fact that not everything is as perfect as it seems. They both told me that the black community in Ripley is fairly small consisting of less than 200 people out of about 1,800, and that it keeps to itself. And, from their stories, it's clear that Ripley is far from achieving racial harmony.


The Bertha Dies (or, How the Trekkers Buy a New Car)

Although none of what they said surprised me - after all, racial tensions are commonplace in America - it nevertheless made me sad. Why? Because for me, Ripley stands as a symbol of this country's ability to unite and come together. In this little sleepy town, great personalities banded, worked and fought side by side against the evil forces of slavery. Where else should blacks and whites be as comfortable working and living together?

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.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass: A blazing intellect and a heart on fire
Kevin - America's open season for "slavecatchers"
Kevin - Editor William Lloyd Garrison wages war with words