One of the most enduring themes in American history, that continues to interest and fascinate many, is that of the Underground Railroad. This term has come to stand for the complex story of how thousands of fugitive slaves escaped to freedom in the North or in Canada in the years before the Civil War. It evokes images of fierce bloodhounds and "slave-catchers" hot on the trail of desperate men, women, and children; secret passageways, hidden cellars, and midnight rendezvous; and an organized network of sympathetic abolitionists using ingenious methods to organize and coordinate successful escapes. Certainly there is a degree of truth in this story, with numerous individuals and places in this dramatic moment of American history identified and documented. In southwestern Ohio and adjacent eastern Indiana this usually involved the efforts of Quakers or antislavery evangelical Christians, many of whom had migrated from the South because of their opposition to slavery. Levi Coffin and John Rankin were two such individuals who are justly famous for their work in helping slaves find their way to freedom. Closer to Dayton, the village of Springboro, Ohio was home to many Quakers who were active in the efforts to aid fugitive slaves, and this community has done much recently to document this phase of its history.
Forming a Legend
However, the idea of the Underground Railroad can also become something of a myth or legend with the image of a highly organized, pervasive system run entirely by numerous well-meaning whites who organized elaborate "tracks" and "stations" to speed the fleeing slaves on their way. After the Civil War, when the victorious North basked in its triumph over slavery, it became relatively easy for many northerners to recall the time before the war as one when just about everyone in their community opposed slavery, and worked fervently to hasten its demise. Late 19th and early 20th-century historians who interviewed such persons wrote books that created the image of the Underground Railroad that has more or less endured to this day. One of the best known of these scholars was Professor Wilbur H. Siebert of The Ohio State University. (For a photograph of Siebert, click here.)
A More Complex Story
This picture, while not entirely inaccurate, has tended to overlook certain things. First, many northern whites before the Civil War were indifferent to, if not actually supportive of, slavery in the South and were not inclined to break the law in order to oppose it. Secondly, fugitive slaves who did escape to and through the North often had to, or chose to, rely for help from other blacks, usually the free persons of color in the northern states, rather than from whites. Or they made their way strictly by their own wit and courage. And finally, a number of the claims about the Underground Railroad, that certain houses were stations or that certain individuals were "conductors", etc rely more on hearsay and memory than on any actual documented evidence or clear proof. Many of these revised interpretations of the Underground Railroad have been advanced by the research of Professor Larry Gara of Wilmington College. His findings, and those of others, have been incorporated into a recent publication of the National Park Service, "Researching and Interpreting the Underground Railroad." See also Dr. Gara's publications listed on the Underground Railroad bibliography page. Today research continues on the Underground Railroad in Ohio, and much of it is coordinated by the Ohio Underground Railroad Association and the Friends of Freedom Society.