OBERLIN, OH - They ran for their lives, desperately trying to elude men who wanted to recapture them and return them to plantations of the American South where owners of slaves considered the people as their "property." Those runaway slaves of the mid-1800s were on routes which became known as the Underground Railroad.
One of the northernmost stops on the Underground Railroad was Oberlin, Ohio, which was known for a strong anti-slave sentiment. "If you have a community with abolitionists and free black families moving here to be educated, the town is naturally going to become a station on the Underground Railroad," said Liz Schultz, museum education and tour coordinator of the Oberlin Heritage Center.
It is headquartered in an old house built in 1866. By the time the Monroe House was built, the Civil War had concluded. But it is highly reminiscent of houses used by hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves who ran to escape the horrible system of slavery in American Southern states.
The Underground Railroad was a network of pathways which stretched from the South all the way to the U.S.-Canadian border. Through word-of-mouth, information on its routes reached the slave cabins in the South. "It came across the Ohio River in Cincinnati into Oberlin," said George Abrams, a volunteer with the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center. It is an organization preserving the history of the Railroad and the significant role Oberlin played in it.
Slaves escaped from bondage in the South and walked hundreds of miles through forests, crossing rivers and streams in whatever manner they could find. Slavecatchers were usually on their heels, aware they could be paid handsomely by slaveowners who wanted to reclaim people they viewed as their legal property.
Even north of the Ohio River in states which did not allow slavery, the runaway slaves had to remain vigilant. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, passed by the U.S. Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern free states, allowed escaping slaves to be returned to slavery.
"They could legally be recovered so even Ohio was not safe," said Schultz as she strolled through the Heritage Center pointing to photographs depicting the lives of slaves.
She said the Heritage Center tries to explain the enormous impact slavery had on the lives of black people who worked without pay and against their wills in the agricultural fields and in many other areas of business south of the Mason-Dixon Line, separating North and South. It was a peculiar institution which had been in place since 1619 when the first Africans were enslaved and brought to the shores of the American colonies.
The Underground Railroad was the only way out for slaves. It is estimated 100,000 tried to find freedom, or at least a better way of living, in the North. "People were making the most difficult decisions, leaving behind everything they knew to take the risk for freedom," said Schultz.
Oberlin was peppered with many houses where white abolitionists took in former slaves running for freedom. Because of the Fugitive Slave Act and the slave catchers who used it to retrieve the runaways, the former slaves were often hidden in crawl spaces in safe houses along their way, including Oberlin. Most of those houses are now gone, but the stories of the role Oberlin played remain prominent today.
Perhaps the most prominent is the 1858 case of a teenaged slave, John Price, who made it to Oberlin only to be recaptured by men from the South. In shackles, Price was on his way back to the South when the men who held him stopped at a building in Wellington, a neighboring community to Oberlin. The men were seen and word filtered back to Oberlin which knew of Price's run for freedom.
"A group of Oberlinians, mostly townspeople and some students from Oberlin College, headed to Wellington to eventually rescue thye runaway slave, John Price," said Ken Grossi, archivist at Oberlin College. "They wre considered heroes in Oberlin for what they had done," he added.
The college itself had become nationally-known for its anti-slavery stance and its belief in equality of the races. Years before, it had admitted black men and women along with white men. Word of Oberlin's beliefs in equality filtered far into the South, so the community in Northern Ohio became a key stop on the Underground Railroad.
"We have a history ranging all the way from the mouth of the Black River, through Oberlin, and all the way down to Wellington," said Heather Fraelich, marketing coordinator of Visit Lorain County, an organization promoting the area as a place to tour. "The Oberlin-Wellington rescue is very much talked about," she added.
On the campus of Oberlin College is a piece of art featuring two rails and railroad ties. The art grows from the soil and points northward. It is symbolic of the Underground Railroad, which was not a railroad, but was a system of secret pathways and routes which carried thousands of people
Abram works to keep the stories alive. He and others involved with the Underground Railroad Center have worked to secure a building which will one day open as the center in Oberlin. Right now, it is an old brick structure in Oberlin which awaits more funding so that those who will run the center will be able to better tell the story. "It will be a symbol of the prominent role that the city of Oberlin played in the Underground Railroad system," said Abram.
No one knows how many runaway slaves found Oberlin. What is known is many did not stop in Ohio because the Fugitive Slave Act could not protect them. Some found shelter in Canada where they had protection of that government. Many of their names were never written or have been lost in history, but Oberlin knew they sought this small community because it was known as a place where they could find help at the end of a run which amounted to hundreds of miles.
Oberlin fought slavery in a very specific way. It is a story chronicled today and celebrated within a city which was a major stop on a railroad line which had no locomotive, but where the passengers came in on foot seeking a freedom from slavery.