A Light Across the River

A moonless night. A rowboat ride, about a mile, across an icy current toward the glow of a lantern on the far side of the river. Someone waiting there will be your next conductor. They'll guide you to a safe house as the Underground Railroad carries you north.

The river crossing from Kentucky, a slave state, to Ohio, a free state, was a risk that many hundreds of black fathers, mothers, and children took in the decades before the Civil War. The people who ferried them across shared in their danger and their courage. One of these was Arthur Gragston.

a 19th c. etching showing a young African American man with a rucksack walking barefoot along a path, presumably toward the North and freedom

Gragston was a young man, enslaved to a Kentucky family named Tabb, when he heeded a call to help others flee to freedom. The first time he took someone across the Ohio River was probably the most frightening. Gragston told an interviewer many years afterward that when he reached the Ohio shore, two men sprang out of the night and seized the young woman who was his passenger. Then one of the men grabbed his arm. But the man was an ally. He wanted to know if Gragston would like something to eat. “If he hadn’t been holding me, I think I would have fell backward into the river,” Gragston recalled.

For a slave running to freedom, the escape plan had to go just right and you could not do it all on your own. You would need to sneak away and find the riverbank meeting place. Your boat driver would need to be very, very sure where and with whom to leave you on the Ohio side, because the journey was not over yet. Anyone who escaped from a Kentucky slave owner still faced peril in Ohio. As a fugitive, you might be pursued, captured, punished, and possibly killed by white people.

Another Underground Railroad conductor was John Parker, born into slavery in Kentucky. Trained as an ironworker, as a young man he worked for wages to purchase his own freedom. Then, he settled across the river in Ripley, Ohio and built a home and an iron foundry that supported his family. Now Parker was in a position to offer sanctuary to others. Many times, he made the boat trip Arthur Gragston had made, but in reverse, leaving Ohio to pick up passengers in Kentucky and give them temporary shelter with his family.

Thousands of black Americans escaped slavery in the care of Underground Railroad conductors. To keep escape routes and safe houses secret, the passengers and conductors kept few written records of their dire adventures. While some conductors and some dramatic escapes are well known, we may never know the scope of this story, nor the names of everyone involved.