logo Click BACK to return to basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Daphne

Daphne Archive



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.

The movement got its name, I found out, when an enslaved runaway, Tice Davids, fled from a Kentucky plantation to seek freedom, and whose owner chased him to the Ohio River. Davids seemed to suddenly disappear 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.

John Rankin's house was a safe haven for runaway slaves
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). 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!

Stephanie stands by the Ohio River where Eliza made her crossing
In Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the most widely-known slavery narratives written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a famous scene describes a barefoot slave named 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. Well, that really happened! And luckily for the real Eliza, John Rankin was there to help.

Wow. It's hard to fully grasp the implications of the actions of people such as John Rankin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman. They truly risked their lives centuries ago so that others could have their freedom. Would I be able to do that? I'm not sure.

Harriet Beecher Stowe stayed in this house when she visited Ripley
And what about today? Was Ripley still considered a haven for African-Americans? How had things changed? How had they stayed the same?

I asked a friendly-looking African-American couple to help answer these questions. Caroline said that Ripley, in her opinion, is a nice, safe and peaceful town. Her husband, Lee, agreed, but also added that the black community in Ripley is fairly small and that it mostly keeps to itself. From their stories, it's clear that Ripley is far from achieving racial harmony.

Visiting Rankin's house was a treat for both Stephanie and me
Though this realization didn't surprise me, it nevertheless made me sad because for me, because of the Underground Railroad, Ripley stands as a symbol of this country's ability to unite and come together. 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 - A brilliant former slave speaks out against slavery
Kevin - Running from the "slavecatchers"
Kevin - A newspaper editor fights slavery with words