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The Underground Railroad: Key Participants

Historians believe that the Underground Railroad may have originated with the Quakers in the late 1780s, so it’s no surprise that Quakers comprised a large portion of white Underground Railroad supporters. White participants, even those who weren’t Quakers, tended to be very religious and included Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Catholics. For them, God’s law superseded man-made laws.

Their occupations ranged from preachers and politicians to ordinary citizens. Jacob M. Howard, a Michigan Underground Railroad supporter who later became a Republican senator, introduced the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, to the Senate.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan were just a few Underground Railroad strongholds. It wasn’t completely uncommon for entire towns to participate. Oberlin and Ripley in Ohio had a large number of participants, many of them unknown. Levi Coffin and John Fairfield were two of the more prominent white participants of the Underground Railroad:

  • Levi Coffin: Sometimes called “the President of the Underground Railroad,” for nearly 20 years, North Carolina — born Coffin and his wife Catharine used their strategic location in southern Indiana, the modern-day Fountain City, to help more than 2,000 former slaves escape to freedom. A successful merchant, Coffin personally helped finance many Underground Railroad efforts.

    So many fugitive slaves came through his home that people renamed it “Grand Central Station.” Coffin’s reputation as a model citizen inspired other white people to become involved with the Underground Railroad. His 1847 relocation to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he died many years later, didn’t end his Underground Railroad activities.

  • John Fairfield: Hailing from a slaveholding family in Virginia, Fairfield, who abhorred slavery, became involved in the Underground Railroad when he helped a slave friend escape to Canada. Subsequently other black people, presumably in the Ohio area where he spent a lot of time, sought him out and paid him to help their relatives and friends escape.

    Posing as a slaveholder, a slave trader, and sometimes a peddler, Fairfield was able to gain the confidence of whites, which made it easier for him to lead runaway slaves to freedom. One of his most impressive feats was freeing 28 slaves by staging a funeral procession. While he led many of his charges to Canada, others he delivered to Levi Coffin, who handled the remainder of their escape.

African Americans had a higher emotional investment since many had relatives and close friends still in bondage. Their job didn’t end with the escape, though. More often than not, fugitive slaves stayed with other African Americans. They frequently settled in black communities where they learned where to look for work as well as how to conduct themselves, among other things.

Despite the tremendous risks of recapture or becoming a slave for the first time, African Americans on all levels vigorously participated in the Underground Railroad and other antislavery efforts. Frederick Douglass’s Rochester, New York, home was a well-known station. Other courageous figures of the Underground Railroad include:

  • William Still: Philadelphia abolitionist Still, revered as “the Father of the Underground Railroad,” assisted as many as 60 slaves a month. Despite the great need for secrecy, the New Jersey—born Still kept meticulous records. Those biographies and details of how each individual escaped later comprised the book, The Underground Railroad (1872).

  • Elijah Anderson: Following a conviction for violating the Kentucky law against “enticing slaves to run away,” Anderson, a fugitive slave who reportedly led 1,000 slaves to freedom, died in a Kentucky state prison.

  • Jane Lewis: New Lebanon, Ohio, resident Lewis rowed countless former slaves across the Ohio River to freedom.

  • John Mason: A fugitive slave once recaptured only to escape again, Mason helped more than 1,300 slaves to freedom. In just 19 months, he reportedly delivered 256 slaves to William Mitchell, a black missionary in Canada.

  • Harriet Tubman: No Underground Railroad figure matches the legendary status of Harriet Tubman, one of its rare female conductors. Even as a young slave, Tubman, born in Maryland around 1820, selflessly protected others: While shielding a field slave from an angry overseer, she received a blow on the head that made her prone to fall into a deep sleep at times throughout her life.

    Unwilling to be sold, Tubman fled north in 1849. She got a job in Philadelphia but traveled back the next year to free her sister and her sister’s two children. Tubman made an amazing 19 trips back south, personally freeing over 300 slaves, including her parents.

African Americans were intrinsically involved in the Underground Railroad beyond just being fugitives. It was understandably harder for white participants to convince other African Americans to flee. Fugitive slaves were particularly convincing and a large number risked their own freedom to free others. Besides, it was also easier for African Americans to blend in, especially on large plantations.

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