Back in the old school days, we all learned about slavery and the Underground Railroad. With slavery considered a southern issue, stories about the Underground Railroad seemed far away, too.
Harriet Tubman has long served as the face of the movement to help free enslaved people. As you really read about the system abolitionists used to help escaped slaves to freedom, you realize the Underground Railroad was really in our own backyards.
With 23 states involved, the Underground Railroad system seemed to operate on two main routes – the east coast and the Midwest. Today, eight Midwestern states honor locations involved in the movement.
Let’s take a look at a few of the sites that offer opportunities to learn more about the role abolitionists in the Midwest played in the Underground Railroad.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center – Cincinnati, Ohio
Open since 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center provides an accurate look into the history of American slavery and the heroes that operated the Underground Railroad.
As the Ohio River separated the southern pro-slavery states from the northern states, people risked their lives to help escaped slaves find their way north and to a better life.
With permanent and traveling exhibits, visitors can learn about centuries of slavery in the country, enslaved people seeking freedom and the people who helped them.
The freedom center also includes an exhibit featuring a real slave pen used by a Kentucky slave trader who sought to keep enslaved people from being moved farther south. The pen was located on property less than 60 miles from the freedom center.
That’s how close slavery was to Cincinnati. You may be surprised by one exhibit that examines present-day slavery, including human trafficking and child labor.
As an author, Harriet Beecher Stowe explored the subject of slavery. After touring Kentucky and seeing slavery firsthand, Beecher Stowe later met freed slaves in Ohio, who became sources for her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
She used the book to help share her opposition to slavery nationally. Her Cincinnati home is open for tours. About two hours south of Cincinnati, Washington, Kentucky, is home to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum.
Historic First Congregational Church of Detroit, Michigan
Offering a true depiction of life as a slave and then escaping to freedom, your hands and wrists are shackled as you start the tour of the Underground Railroad Living History Museum at the Historic First Congregational Church of Detroit.
You are then paraded through the “Door of No Return,” as Africans were on Goree Island in Africa. As you learn about life as an enslaved person in the south, you find your chance to escape and then find passage along the Underground Railroad.
You’ll encounter a series of exhibits and artifacts as you learn about what it took to find freedom. The tour eventually leads you to the church in Detroit, much like the men, women, and children who sought their way north. Many escaped slaves moved to Canada to find a new life there.
Owen Lovejoy House – Princeton, Illinois
Known as the “Lovejoy Line,” Owen Lovejoy, an abolitionist, publicly announced his home as a safe haven for escaped slaves making their way north.
Located about 2 hours southwest of Chicago (along Interstate 80), the Owen Lovejoy House in Princeton is open for tours May-September (by appointment October-April). Lovejoy, a minister with the Congregational Church, served in the US House of Representatives and took pride in his opposition to slavery, openly expressing himself to his pro-slavery colleagues.
His brother, a newspaper publisher and abolitionist, had been killed in Alton, Illinois.
John Brown Cabin – Osawatomie, Kansas
Possibly the best-known abolitionist west of the Mississippi River, John Brown was known for his fierce opposition to slavery, having relocated from his farm in upstate New York to fight for the cause in Kansas.
Leading a group of about 40 anti-slavery supporters into an armed conflict against 400 proslavery soldiers. While the proslavery army won the “Battle of Osawatomie,” it only fueled the fire inside Brown, especially since one of his sons perished in an earlier fight there.
The John Brown Cabin was actually built by his brother-in-law, Samul Adair. Brown, who lived in Kansas for a little more than a year-and-a-half, frequented the cabin. Moved to its present site at John Brown Park, the cabin, along with its original furnishings, is open for public tours year-round.
Hitchcock House – Lewis, Iowa
Located in rural Lewis, the Rev. George B. Hitchcock dedicated his life to helping escaped slaves find their way north. With his farm located a short distance from the East NIshnabotna River, people would follow the water to the Hitchcock House.
During the 1850s, more than 200 escaped slaves visited Hitchcock’s farm as they successfully found freedom. A tour of the house (available May-September) offers a look at rural life during the abolitionist era. Each room is furnished with items from the mid-1800s.
As you tour the house, a guide takes you to the cellar, which has a false wall covered with a black cloth as well as a large cabinet. It would be moved so people could rest in the hidden room.
As you enter the room and see the river in the background, you can sense the fear and relief each person must have felt when they visited the Hitchcock House. If a posse was in the area searching for escaped slaves to return south, a lit candle would be placed in an upstairs bedroom as a warning for the freedom seekers to either hide or move along the Underground Railroad for another safe spot.
While the story of slavery may focus on southern states, the story of the Underground Railroad runs straight through the Midwest with attractions in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Between the northern abolitionists and more than a million men who served in the Union army during the Civil War, the Midwest was committed to fighting slavery and keeping the United States whole.
With several locations around the Midwest to visit, the story of the Underground Railroad is waiting to be shared with you.