Sunday, March 7, 2010

Origins of Underground Railroad Name

While just about everyone has heard of the Underground Railroad, few realize the origins of the name. One story has it that in 1831 a runaway slave from Kentucky, Tice Davids, reached the Ohio River just across from the town of Ripley, Ohio. The fugitive's master was in close pursuit and as Davids slipped in river to swim across, his owner found a boat on the shore and followed. The owner could see Davids's bobbing up and down in the current and saw him emerge on the Ohio bank. When the master finally made his way across the river, he searched high and low in the town in attempt to reclaim his property. But Davids was no where to be found, which led the frustrated owner to exclaim that Davids must have "gone on an underground road."

Although the practice of aiding fugitive slaves predates the term itself, with the rise of the invention of the train, and the rapid expansion of the railroad system in this era, those terms were added to the "underground road" name. In addition, such railroad terms as stations (safe houses), and conductors (friends of fugitives), as well as phrases such as "catching the next train North," were appropriated by those that supported the practice.

Ripley, Ohio was known throughout Kentucky as "the hell hole of abolitionism," due to the fact that many people in the town provided help to fugitives from the Bluegrass state in their effort to make it to Canada. The Rev. John Rankin was the recognized leader in the community. His house sat high atop the town on a ridge (see picture above) and served as a beacon to Kentucky slaves. Rankin was born and raised in Jefferson County in East Tennessee and had later moved to Northern Kentucky to preach, but he finally moved on to Ohio when his antislavery messages were not well received in the Commonwealth. John Parker, a mixed raced freeman born into slavery in Virginia and then sold in a slave coffle to Alabama tried to escape several times before finally purchasing his freedom. He moved to the town in the mid 1840s after a short stay in New Albany, Indiana. Parker eventually established his own iron business and made numerous exciting trips into Kentucky to pilot slaves across the Ohio River and help send them on their way to Canada. His story is vividly brought to life in The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Both the Rankin and Parker houses survive today in Ripley. I hope to soon make a trip across the Ohio myself to see both of these historically significant sites.

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