Free Blacks

jacob cummings OHS.jpg

Rev. Jacob Cummings escaped in 1839 and fled to Canada.  He collected good for fugitives and shipped them to Henry Bibb in Detroit. 

Blacks offered shelter, clothes, money, and transportation to fugitives crossing through points north.  By the 1820’s Kentucky gained a reputation for assisting slaves across the Ohio River.  African Americans acquired a tremendous amount of wealth.  In 1850 property owned by blacks living in the Ohio Valley exceeded $500,000.[1]

“Liberty lines” followed African American community development before the organization of the Underground Railroad.  Fugitive slaves did not trust whites, but knew African Americans would help them.  Blacks assisted fugitives out of a sense of community pride.  Fugitive Andrew Jackson stated, “[I]f it was right for the revolutionary patriots to fight for liberty it was right for me.”[2] Many free blacks who lived in Indiana and Ohio were themselves fugitives and committed their life to assisting slaves.  Steamboat barber John Hatfield exclaimed, “. . . I have had 15 runaways harbored in my house at one time – in one year twenty-seven. . . I never felt better pleased with anything I ever did in my life, than in getting a slave woman clear.”[3]

African Americans in the Ohio Valley borderland frequently met and discussed aiding fugitive slaves.  For five days in 1852, African American leaders in Cincinnati met to discuss slavery and racial discrimination.[4] Black women in Cincinnati organized the Anti-Slavery Sewing Society and sewed clothes for runaways.  Headed by Elizabeth Coleman and Sarah Earnest, the society met at the home of abolitionist Levi Coffin.  Jane J. Jackson and Mary Gibson steered a committee to raise funds in 1858 for the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society.[5]


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1st A.M.E. church in Indianapolis.  Bethel African Methosdist Episcopal Church.  Stop on the Underground Railroad.

Affluent African Americans used their wealth to purchase and emancipate enslaved blacks.  The purchase came with a loan agreement stipulating the bondsperson repaid the loan over a set length of time.  This process allowed emancipated blacks to stay in the area close to family.  William W. Watson moved to Cincinnati after his brother purchased and emancipated him.  Once in Cincinnati, Watson began barbering and saved enough money to repay his brother and purchase four family members.[6]  Washington Spralding of Louisville purchased and manumitted thirty-three slaves.[7]  Spralding and several other African American men emancipated almost 10 percent of emancipations in Louisville.[8]  Blacks in Cincinnati raised funds to purchase captured fugitive slaves.[9]  Kentucky slaves also purchased their freedom.  While this process took several years, it provided an honorable way for self-emancipation.  When the value of slaves increased in the 1850’s flight became the only option for self-emancipation.

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John Parker home, Ripley, Ohio

John Parker

John Parker rowed across the Ohio River into Kentucky at least once a week for almost a decade assisted fugitives.  Born into slavery in Virginia, Parker purchased his freedom 1845 and four years later moved to Ripley, Ohio.  Parker began his involvement aiding fugitives with a neighbor convinced him to aid in guiding two slave girls from Maysville.  Parker reluctantly agreed; the neighbor abandoned the mission, but Parker determined to help the girls persevered.  The Commercial Tribune of Cincinnati described Parker as, “A more fearless creature never lived.”[10]  Parker kept a ledger with names, dates, and details of every fugitive he assisted across the river, however after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act; he threw the book into the furnace.[11] 

Patenting a number of inventions from his foundry, Parker was one of only a few African Americans to obtain a U.S. patent in the 19th century. He published his autobiography His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad after the Civil War. 

The following is taken from an interview with Parker by the 1863 Freedman's Inquiry. 

"While the businessmen were not abolitionists, they were antislavery. But the town itself was proslavery as well as the country around it. In fact, the country was so antagonistic to abolitionism at this time, we could only take the fugitives out of town and through the country along definite and limited routes.

There was also very active a certain group of men who made a living by capturing the runaway slaves and returning them to their masters. These men were on watch day and night along the riverbank the year round. While they captured quite a few it was remarkable how many slaves we got through the line successfully. The feeling grew so tense Rev. John Rankin and his followers left the Presbyterian church forming a new congregation who were given over to the antislavery movement.

Many of the Methodists were in silent sympathy with the movement, [and] would give us money, but would take no aggressive part. As a matter of fact, this abolitionist group were ridiculed, detested, and even threatened by the town’s people. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in [1850], the attitude of the town’s people grew even more critical of our group. We had to be more secretive than ever, for it meant confiscation of property, a fine, and [a] jail sentence."[12]


Elijah Anderson's home, Madison, Indiana.

Elijah Anderson

A skilled blacksmith, Amederson was born free around 1808 in Virginia.  He moved to Madison, Indian in the 1830s and quickly began operations in the Underground Railroad.  Anderson travelled into Kentucky to meet runaways and accompany them across the Ohio River.  Anderson claimed to have brought 800 fugtivies to freedom while in Madison and 1000 during the time he was in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana.  In 1857, authorites caught up to Anderson and arrested him.   Convicted of "Enticing Slaves to Run Away" in Trimble County, Anderson was sentenced to an eight year term in June of 1857.  On March 4, 1861, the day of Anderson's release he was found dead in his cell. The official cause of death was given as "Hydro-pericardium," an inflammation of the membrane enclosing the heart. [13]


[1] Joe William Trotter, River Jordan: African AMerican Urban Life in the Ohio Valley, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 38
[2] Keith Griffler, Frontline of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. (Lexington: Unviversity of Lexington Press, 2004), 85.
[3] Bigelow, Ann Clymer, “Antebellum of Black Barbers.” Ohio Valley History 11, no. 2 (2011), 36.
[4] Bigelow, “Antebellum of Black Barbers,” 26.
[5] Trotter, River Jordan, 47-49.
[6] Bigelow, “Antebellum of Black Barbers,” 27.
[7]  History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, “My children are Just Tied Down Here”: Washington Spradling Discusses the Condition of Free Blacks in the South, 1863,”, (accessed November 25, 2012).
[8]  Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and The Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland, (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2002) 140
[9] Hudson, Fugitive Slaves, 121.
[10] Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 233.
[11] Haegerdorn, Beyond the River, 237
[12] "John P. Parker, Conductor, on the Underground Railroad" History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web,, (accessed December 1, 2012).
[13] Blaine Hudson, Encyclodpedia of the Underground Railroad, (Jefferson:McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006), 29.
Free Blacks