Who do you love most in this world? Could you leave them behind and travel an Underground Railroad toward freedom? The decision to flee was not made lightly. A runaway was not just leaving behind the shackles of slavery but also cherished family and friends. Still, some chose flight. Runaway slaves journeyed by any means possible—by foot, wagon, railroad, and canal. Letters and oral histories conducted by historian William Siebert in the 1880s indicate that Ohio’s canals were used to transport cargo, a common code word for slaves.
Trail to Freedom
Although there is no definitive proof that canals were part of the Underground Railroad, the Ohio & Erie Canal clearly presented advantages to slaves trying to cross Ohio. This 308-mile canal was a well-marked route connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie. It is highly likely that slaves walked or ran under cover of night along the canal’s towpath—north to Cleveland. Other runaways might have reached Cleveland hidden aboard canal boats with assistance from a friend of a friend, a common code for sympathetic people along the way. From Cleveland, or Hope, escaping slaves would take the final step to freedom by crossing Lake Erie into Canada.
Law of the LandWritten into the Constitution of the United States, “involuntary servitude” permitted people to own other people. Subsequent laws made it illegal to assist runaway slaves and stipulated where slavery could exist. The second Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850 stated that anyone assisting a runaway slave would be fined $1,000 and spend six months in a federal prison. It also required law enforcement officers to assist slave catchers and allowed them to search homes.
A Hotbed of AbolitionistsDespite the dangers, people known as abolitionists believed that slavery should not exist and fought to end it. Northeast Ohio was a hotbed of abolitionist activity. Men and women, black and white, free and enslaved, worked together for their cause.
Many were entering the political arena for the first time. Women in Northeast Ohio organized female anti-slavery societies, circulated petitions, served as delegates to state and national antislavery conventions, and drafted editorials that were published in local papers such as The Anti-Slavery Bugle. In time, growing political experience and awareness of the plight of the slaves, inspired women to consider their own freedom more critically; the women’s suffrage movement grew from the ranks of the abolitionist movement. Free blacks were a small but active abolitionist group in Northeast Ohio. They actively fought for the abolishment of Ohio’s Black Laws and segregation, and for the education of their children. Through organized meetings and petitions, they slowly changed state laws. John Malvin (1795-1880), a free black abolitionist and canal boat captain, was considered by some to be the founder of the civil rights movement in Cleveland. When Malvin refused to be segregated in church, he set in motion a trend of activism. If blacks and whites could pray next to each other, they could also live side by side. Although he does not mention it in his autobiography, it is plausible that Malvin assisted slaves escaping along the canal.