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Wooster Digital History Project

The Underground Railroad in Wayne County

Contrary to popular belief, the Underground Railroad was not a ‘real’ railroad and in the majority of cases was not underground. Despite the deceiving nature of its name, the Underground Railroad was veritable organization that helped thousands of enslaved people escape to safety. Beginning early in the 1800’s, those sympathetic to the slaves’ plight set up a system of safe houses, following a series of different routes leading both north to Canada and south to Mexico. While it is impossible to say how many slaves escaped to freedom, estimates indicate 1,000 to 5,000 slaves escaped annually. The exact number of liberated slaves is hard to guess because both abolitionists and slave owners benefitted from exaggerating these numbers. Slaveholders used these numbers as evidence of a “northern conspiracy to undermine the particular institution,” says Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Eric Foner. Abolitionists fighting for slaves’ rights advertised magnified numbers to demonstrate the black desire for freedom and to validate their own efforts.[1]

The exaggeration of not just escaping slave numbers, but also the extent of Underground Railroad’s network has been a point of debate among historians. Understandably, few Antebellum records survive documenting what was an illegal activity, punishable by 1,000 dollars and up to six months in jail for those who participated.  This is one of the most difficult aspects when studying the Underground Railroad. Further complicating research, after the Civil War many abolitionists published their experiences; these memoirs tended to make white abolitionists the hero of the story, reminding the reader of the authors’ accomplishments, and highlighting the organization and efficacy of the system. Many readers and historians became attached to this idea of a huge abolitionist network across the country, leading them to believe any “unexplained” architectural anomalies, including tunnels or cellars, were in fact built for the housing of escaping slaves. While there are records of buildings built specifically for escaping slaves, these cases A extremely rare. This has lead to a mix of truth and legend being passed down through generations. Tracing these tales back to their origins has proved even more difficult because most have been transmitted through family stories. It is important to remember that while we can’t prove these stories, it doesn’t mean that they are not true or that they are not valuable. They still say something about events and our perception of the past.

[1] Foner, Eric. "Rethinking the Underground Railroad." InGateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York City, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.