Enslaved men, women, and children made their way through the northern counties of Kentucky across the Ohio River toward freedom in the North, finding shelter provided by members of a secret society known as the Underground Railroad. In Boone County, research has uncovered stories of heroism and sacrifice.
“The Underground Railroad would be the first multiracial, multiethnic civil rights movement in the history of the United Sates,” said Eric R. Jackson, PhD., director of the Black World Studies program at Northern Kentucky University. It was a loosely knit group made up of African-Americans who were trying to escape slavery and those who were trying to help them escape.
Historians attribute the phrase “Underground Railroad” to a Kentucky slaveholder, said Hillary Delaney of the Boone County Public Library. “He had lost a slave and could not find him, and he was so surprised that he didn’t find his trail, that he said he must have disappeared on an underground railroad,” she explained.
Richard C. Cooper, director of museum experiences for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, across the river in Cincinnati, said slavery in Boone County was a little different than in the Deep South. “You would see an average enslaved person most likely working alongside their owner in the fields on a daily basis. But that doesn’t change what slavery was and what it meant,” he said. “The underlying principle is someone owned someone else. And they could not make decisions for themselves.”
Delaney said the ridge looking over the Ohio River allowed enslaved persons to get a wide view of the area before crossing. “We know in Boone County when people were trying to escape typically it would be a nighttime situation. A lot of times it was during the weekend because they weren’t discovered (missing) right away. They would travel very, very light, so very little food, probably no change of clothes. In some cases, maybe not shoes. “
Among the stops believed to be on the Underground Railroad was the Unitarian Universalist Church, located on the ridgeline. Church members there were opposed to slavery.
“The Universalist church, just like the Baptist church and other churches, was split over the system of enslavement. Because there are some church members who actually believe, that regardless of their theology…enslaving folks of color was still okay,” said Jackson.
It is believed that enslaved persons crossed the Ohio River within a few hundred feet of the Anderson Ferry crossing. The Anderson Ferry changed ownership in 1841 to protect the ferry license from Ohio accusations of helping with escapes, said Bridget B. Striker of the Boone County Public Library.
“In the winter and the summer, when the river was low or covered in ice, they could very easily just walk across the river,” Striker said. “The Ohio River didn’t look anything like it does now. “
A group of enslaved men, women, and children in Boone County known as the Cincinnati 28 escaped slavery by crossing the river into Cincinnati. The group was believed to be affiliated through slaveholders with a Baptist church in Boone County. In April 1853 after a church meeting, the group escaped across the river. They arrived in Cincinnati in the middle of the day and hid themselves in plain sight by disguising themselves in a funeral procession.
Another site believed to be on the Underground Railroad is the home of J.C. Jenkins in Petersburg. The home has a hiding place between two floors and a tunnel. Jenkins’ barn was burned at one point as retaliation for his help on the Underground Railroad.
The town of Rabbit Hash was another area where enslaved people crossed the Ohio. They used poles to move across the river without making noise.
“We owe it to the people who experienced slavery and experienced trying to find freedom through the Underground Railroad, and everyone who helped them along the way, we owe it to them to acknowledge the efforts they made and the roles they played, and the impact they had. It was people helping other people escape,” said Striker.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2108, which originally aired on February 20, 2016. Watch the full episode.