John Brown was born in 1800 to deeply religious Owen and Ruth Brown. As a teenager, Brown witnessed his friend, an enslaved boy, be beaten severely. This event and his father’s fierce opposition to slavery influenced his passion for ending slavery in America. During the 1840s, Brown began to appeal more directly to black antislavery activists and share his ideas about the failures of “moral suasion.” Through his activities, he became acquainted with Frederick Douglas, George De Baptiste, William Lambert, William Webb and William C. Monroe. Brown gained notoriety in 1855 and 1856 for his role in the “Bleeding Kansas” border wars. He is most remembered for his raid on Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859.
Orphaned at a young age, John Mercer Langston grew up to become a lawyer, politician, and protector of runway slaves. Langston was the child of a white slave owner and formerly enslaved woman named Lucy Jane Langston; both died in 1834, forcing Langston and his two brothers to move to Ohio. He enrolled at Oberlin College in 1844. From the late 1840s and into the 1860s, Langston participated in the black convention movement, often delivering speeches on issues of equality and voting. In 1855, he became the first black elected official in the nation when he won the race for township clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio. In 1890, he became the first black Congressman from Virginia.
John P. Parker was born in 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia, to a white man and a black woman. When he was only eight years old, he was chained to another slave and forced to march to Richmond so that he could be sold on the auction block. He eventually purchased his freedom and started a foundry in Ripley, Ohio. He made many journeys into Kentucky to help enslaved people escape, thus earning a reputation as a troublemaker. When pro-slavery whites placed a bounty on his head, Parker burned all records of his daring activities.
Presbyterian minister John Rankin moved his family to Kentucky, where he became an active member of the Kentucky Abolition Society and opened a school for enslaved children despite laws that forbade him from teaching slaves to read. After receiving many threats, he moved his family to Ripley, Ohio. By 1824 he began publishing a series of antislavery letters that were addressed to his slaveholding brother in Virginia. His writings were later published in abolitionist papers in New Jersey. Rankin claimed to have helped hundreds of runaways escape across the Ohio River prior to the Civil War.
In 1844, sailor Jonathan Walker became a national celebrity after being tried for attempting to help seven enslaved men from Florida escape to freedom in the Bahamas. Walker was born in 1799 in Harwich, Massachusetts and grew up in shipyards and on ships. During his career as a sailor, he became acquainted with abolitionists including Benjamin Lundy. On a salvaging mission in Florida, seven enslaved men asked him to take them to the Bahamas where they could be free; he agreed and they set sail in 1844. Before reaching the Bahamas, another ship captured Walker’s boat and returned it to Florida. All seven men were returned to slavery and Walker was tried for aiding slaves. He was fined $600, received prison time and had his hand branded with an “S.S.” to forever signify that he was a “slave stealer.”
Considered by some to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson was born enslaved in Charles County, Maryland in 1789. As a child he saw his father beaten for attacking an overseer. His father’s continued disobedience resulted in his being sold away; Henson never saw him again. This event influenced Henson to earn his master’s favor. When Isaac Riley, his master, fell into financial trouble, he sold 19 of his slaves to a slave owner in Kentucky; he entrusted Henson to transport them. Henson led them through Ohio, a free state, but chose to continue the rest of the journey to Kentucky. Though he longed to be a free man, he never considered running away. He worked to buy his freedom but when his owner added stipulations, he ran away to Colchester, Canada with his wife and children.
Levi Coffin was born on October 28, 1798 in New Garden, North Carolina to an established Quaker family. One day, while he and his father were working along a roadside, young seven-year-old Levi watched as slave traders marched a group of men down the dirt path in shackles. Coffin never forgot the experience and used it as a motivator in his endeavors as an abolitionist. The Coffin family moved to Newport, Indiana in 1826, where they became heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. As an adult he continued to help runaways, organized the non-denominational Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, and attended the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris.
Lewis Hayden was born enslaved in 1811 but fled bondage and became one of Boston’s leading abolitionists. After Calvin Fairbank helped the Hayden family escape slavery in Kentucky, they fled to Canada. Determined to end slavery in America, Hayden moved to Detroit but soon made Boston his permanent home. He owned and operated a clothing store while aiding runaways and was an important figure in the now-famous rescues of Ellen and William Craft, Shadrach Minkins, Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns.
Lucie and Thornton Blackburn fled slavery in Kentucky for freedom in Detroit in 1831. They were both enslaved in Louisville when they met, and decided to run away together shortly after their owners agreed to let them get married. In 1833, slave catchers captured and jailed the couple. Detroit’s small, supportive black community refused to let them be returned to slavery. A large group of men and women gathered around the jailhouse and developed a plan to smuggle Lucie out of jail in another woman’s clothes. When the jailers attempted to march Thornton out of the city in chains, protestors surrounded his handlers and quickly shuffled him into a carriage before taking him and his wife across the river to Windsor.
Lucy Stone dedicated her life to abolitionism and the fight for women’s rights. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1847, making her the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a bachelor’s degree. After giving a speech at her brother’s church, William Lloyd Garrison hired her to be an abolitionist lecturer. When Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment after the Civil War, she broke with the majority of her female suffragist colleagues to support the amendment.