The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati properly recognizes the key role of the city in helping to conduct enslaved persons to freedom. Ohio law from the 1830’s held that enslaved people brought by their owners to Ohio, a free state, became free. As long as their entry into Ohio occurred with the consent of the owner, they could not be pursued as fugitive slaves. (Slave owners and catchers disputed the claim, especially after the passage of the strict Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but even then, Ohio magistrates ordered some apprehended slaves be released.) Free Blacks often informed slaves brought as servants of their visiting masters of the law; even steamboats docked on the Ohio shore qualified as part of the free North. African Americans also participated in more daring and dangerous rescues of true fugitive slaves on the Kentucky shore. In either case, federal law allowed the owners of escaped slaves who returned to the South, willingly or not, to reassert their ownership. Cincinnati was not always a safe place to stay.

The Underground Railroad was the name given to the networks of people Black and white who helped escaped slaves find their ways to supportive communities in rural areas where they could blend in to the surroundings, in large cities farther from the South, or in some cases to Canada. Walnut Hills, just up the hill from Buck town, was a convenient place for some “passengers” to start their journeys. When a white family in Walnut Hills discovered that their servant Zillah was a fugitive and slavecatchers were on the trail, they managed to hide her in a carriage and conduct her to a white sympathizer who helped her on her way.

The image illustrates passage through the better documented suburb of College Hill.