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The Underground Railroad
  In the years after the Civil War, stories of an Underground Railroad that helped runaway slaves travel north to safety and freedom came to rank among the most popular elements of local legend. They were also among the most exaggerated, misunderstood and difficult to document. Since it was against the law to assist escaping slaves, it was necessary to conceal the activities of the Underground Railroad, and due to this secrecy, much of what is known about it today was recorded many years after the events took place.  
Contrary to legend, no tunnels burrowed under the Ohio River and no highly organized institution existed to spirit runaways northward. Most importantly, the idea that runaways were helpless cargo in the caring hands of highly principled and fearless whites distorted reality. The Underground Railroad was an informal network operated by both whites and blacks.
The role of free blacks in the activities of the Underground Railroad is often underestimated. Runaway slaves often found assistance from fellow blacks, who rarely trusted even well known abolitionists with news that a new group of slaves was passing through. In a letter to Lewis Tappan in February 1837, James G. Birney, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist, speaking of runaways passing through Cincinnati, commented that "the Slaves are escaping in great numbers through Ohio to Canada. … Such matters are almost uniformly managed by the colored people. I know nothing of them generally till they are past." In Cincinnati, there were three local black churches that provided a safe haven for those who were seeking freedom. These religious institutions were Allen Temple A.M.E. Church, Union Baptist Church, and Zion Baptist Church.   Levi Coffin
Levi Coffin
Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, 1876
Cincinnati History Library and Archives
Cincinnati Museum Center
There were also whites in Cincinnati who assisted escaping slaves, and the most noted of these individuals was Levi Coffin. Coffin began actively participating in the Underground Railroad while living in Indiana. After moving to Cincinnati in 1847, he and his wife thought their work with assisting runaway slaves was over. But as Coffin later wrote in his Reminiscences, "we were soon fully initiated into the management of Underground Railroad matters in Cincinnati and did not lack for work. Our willingness to aid the slaves was soon known and hardly a fugitive came to the city without applying to us for assistance."
Allen Temple A.M.E. Church
John Rankin
The Soldier, the Battle, and the Victory
by Andrew Ritchie, 1852
Cincinnati History Library and Archives
Cincinnati Museum Center
  Ohio was a major player in the Underground Railroad. Of the estimated 100,000 slaves who escaped the South, approximately 40,000 of them are believed to have traveled through Ohio. In addition to Levi Coffin, others in southwest Ohio provided assistance along the road to freedom. To the north of the city, the home of Samuel and Sally Wilson in College Hill served as an Underground Railroad station. In Clermont County there were a number of stations, including the home of Robert Fee in Moscow. Further east in Ripley, John Parker, a former slave, and the Reverend John Rankin were also well-known conductors on the Underground Railroad.

To learn more about the Underground Railroad, consult the following resources:

Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad
By Ann Hagedorn
General 973.7115 H141
This work discusses the role Ripley, Ohio played in the Underground Railroad and looks at various local participants, including the Reverend John Rankin and John Parker.
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Encyclopedia of the Underground Railroad
By J. Blaine Hudson
General f973.7115 H885e
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Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad as told by Levi Coffin and William Still
Edited with an introduction by George and Willene Hendrick
General 973.7115 F594
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Freedom’s Struggle: A Response to Slavery from the Ohio Borderlands
By Gary L. Knepp
General 973.7115 K68
This book explores Clermont County’s role in the antislavery movement.
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Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley
By Keith P. Griffler
General 973.7115 G855
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Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland
By J. Blaine Hudson
General f973.7115 H885
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His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad
By John P. Parker
General B P241
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John P. Parker: Black Abolitionist Entrepreneur, 1827-1900
By Louis Weeks in Ohio History, Vol. 80, No. 2, Spring 1971, pages 155‑162
General q977.1 O37ap
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Levi Coffin, Quaker: Breaking the Bonds of Slavery in Ohio and Indiana
By Mary Ann Yannessa
General B C675y
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My Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A College Hill Sourcebook of Black History
By the College Hill Historical Society
Pamphlets f977.14 C697b
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The Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroads
By Wilbur Henry Siebert
General 326.973 S571
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Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad
By Levi Coffin
General B C675
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The Reverend John Rankin: Early Ohio Antislavery Leader
By Larry Gene Willey
Thesis fB R211w
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The Soldier, the Battle, and the Victory: Being a Brief Account of the Work of Rev. John Rankin in the Anti-Slavery Cause
By Andrew Ritchie
R.B. B R211
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Traveling the Underground Railroad: A Visitor’s Guide to More than 300 Sites
By Bruce Chadwick
General 973.7115 C432
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The Underground Railroad: Legend and Reality
By Larry Gara in Timeline, Vol. 5, No. 4, August/September 1988, pages 18‑31
General q977.1 T583
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A Woman’s Life Work: Including Thirty Years’ Service on the Underground Railroad and in the War
By Laura S. Haviland
General B H3881
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Sources Used for Historical Sketch:
  • Cincinnati: The Queen City. General f977.14 H964, 1996. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
  • Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad. General B C675. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
  • Dumond, Dwight L., ed. Letters of James Gillespie Birney, 1831-1857. General B B619. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
  • Brunsman, Barrett J. "Clermont County a Main Line of the Underground Railroad." Cincinnati Enquirer, April 4, 2011, page C4.
  • Johnston, John. "Close to Home: Across the Region, Dozens of Sites have Historic Ties to the Underground Railroad." Cincinnati Enquirer, August 16, 2004, pages C1 and C5.
  • Marsh, Betsa. "Ohio Key to Underground Railroad." Cincinnati Enquirer, June 1, 2008, page F4.


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This online guide opened on February 10, 2004.