Runaway Slaves

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The Runaway.jpg
Reproduction of a picture depicting a fugitive slave that is typical of the images that appeared on handbills of southern slave owners searching for escaped slaves. It appeared in the New York paper, The Anti-Slavery Record, in July 1837. The paper was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. The image was collected by Ohio State University professor Wilbur H. Siebert (1866-1961). Siebert began researching the Underground Railroad in the 1890s as a way to interest his students in history.

Before the American Civil War, a large number of runaway slaves passed through Ohio. One of the major reasons runaway slaves came to Ohio was the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses and hiding places connecting the slave-holding South to freedom in Canada. Caucasian and African American "conductors" served as guides along the way.

Members of the Society of Friends called Quakers were actively assisting runaway slaves as early as the 1780s. People residing in Ohio began playing a major role in the anti-slavery movement by the 1810s. Levi Coffin and John Rankin were two of Ohio's more important participants in the Underground Railroad. Historian Wilbur Siebert estimates that three thousand miles of Underground Railroad trails ran through Ohio.

Not all runaway slaves chose to remain in Ohio. Although slavery was illegal in Ohio, a number of people still opposed the ending of slavery. Many of these people also were opposed to the Underground Railroad. Some people attacked conductors on the Underground Railroad or returned runaway slaves to their owners in hopes of collecting rewards. To truly win their freedom, runaway slaves had to flee all of the way to Canada.

Prior to statehood and the growth of cities, many runaway slaves lived with friendly Native Americans. Many African Americans hoped that whites, already fearful of Native Americans, would not look for them among the natives. During the late 1700s and the early 1800s, many African Americans settled in Upper Sandusky with the Wyandot natives.

Many African Americans moved to the rapidly growing towns and cities of Ohio. Most African Americans had little money and could not afford to purchase land to become farmers. They hoped to find jobs in the cities and become factory workers or skilled artisans. Less fortunate African Americans took poorer paying jobs as housekeepers, waiters, and day laborers. Most African American people usually lived in the same neighborhoods. They did this partly out of fear of slave owners and also because many people did not want African Americans living in other parts of the cities. Race riots sometimes occurred, especially if it seemed that African Americans were gaining too much power or taking jobs from white workers. In 1829, a riot occurred in Cincinnati because Irish immigrants disliked competition from the African American community. The next year, Portsmouth residents forced approximately eighty African Americans to leave the community. Sometimes African Americans formed their own towns. Such was the case for Carthagena in Mercer County. During the 1840s, local residents forced the African American settlers to leave the area.

After statehood in 1803, the Ohio General Assembly enacted a number of laws limiting the rights of African Americans. The Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1803 prohibited African American men from voting. This right failed to reach approval by a single vote.

Women of all races could not vote in Ohio. African American men could not enlist in the militia, serve on juries, testify in court against whites, receive assistance at the "poor house," or send their children to public schools. In 1804, the Ohio General Assembly passed a law requiring all African Americans to post a bond of five hundred dollars to insure their good conduct. Despite these restrictions, many African American people continued to come to Ohio. By 1860, almost thirty-seven thousand African Americans lived in Ohio.

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