When Cincinnati’s African American population dramatically increased, white Cincinnatians demanded that the city begin enforcing Ohio’s Black Codes. In response to these racial tensions, James Charles Brown, a former slave, organized black Cincinnatians around the idea of starting a settlement in Ontario. When white mobs raided a black neighborhood, thousands of African Americans fled the city; many had sights on Brown’s settlement, some relocated to other Northern cities. The settlement in Ontario became known as Wilberforce and had a gristmill, three sawmills, general stores and a tavern.
In 1848, William and Ellen Craft hatched a plan to escape slavery in Georgia for freedom in the North via railroad. Ellen, being very fair skinned, was to pose as a young white man while William was to pretend to be “his” servant. William purchased men’s clothing for Ellen, who added to the disguise by placing bandages on her face and resting her arm in a sling so that she did not have to sign any documents during their journey. On December 26, 1848, the couple boarded a train to Savannah and made their way to Philadelphia before the New Year. They traveled through Europe, Africa and the United States telling their story and setting up schools.
William Lambert was one of Detroit’s wealthiest and most influential African American residents. He was born to free parents in Trenton, New Jersey and worked as a cabin boy on a steamboat. He moved to Detroit between 1838 and 1840 and began participating in abolitionist causes. He worked in Robert Bank’s clothing shop with George DeBaptiste until he opened his own; DeBaptiste helped Lambert establish contacts with other prominent black leaders in the city. Lambert was a founder of the Colored Vigilant Committee of Detroit and smuggled fugitive slaves to Canada. His skills as a writer and orator proved invaluable for every organization with which he was involved.
William Still was born in Burlington County, New Jersey on October 7, 1821. Still moved to Philadelphia in 1847 and became a mail clerk for the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Within a few years, Still became its secretary and chairman of the organization’s Acting Committee. He kept records of hundreds of fugitives that he and other members helped reach freedom. In addition to his work on the Underground Railroad, he also actively fought for civil rights for free people of color as a member of the Committee of the Car, which protested against segregation of African Americans on Philadelphia’s new streetcars.
William Webb Harwood was one of the founding fathers of Ypsilanti as well as an active worker on the Underground Railroad. His house still stands, with one of its hiding spots in the basement revealed during restoration in 2006. Harwood was close friends with fellow Underground Railroad agent Asher Aray, an African American neighbor. The Harwoods and Arays are buried in the cemetery behind the house.
William Wells Brown was born in 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky. In his twenties, he was hired out to an innkeeper named William Freeland. After working for Freeland, he was hired out to work for other cruel men. Brown later decided to run away with his mother. They made it to central Illinois before they were captured. Before his mother was sold down the river, she encouraged her son to make another attempt at freedom; they never saw each other again. Soon after, he made his escape and began his life as an antislavery orator, author and lecturer. He traveled throughout the United States and Europe lecturing on the evils of slavery and telling his story.
African American entrepreneur William Whipper used his influence to protect runaway slaves and helped them find their way to freedom in the North. Whipper was born near Lancaster, Pennsylvania either in 1804 or 1806. By 1828, William Whipper was living in Philadelphia and quickly became active in the city’s black reform societies. He also opened a free labor and temperance grocery store next door to the Bethel Church in Philadelphia in March of 1834. By his own account, Whipper aided hundreds of runaways escape to the North and provided thousands of dollars annually to the Underground Railroad.
Prior Foster founded the Woodstock Manual Labor Institute in 1844 in Addison, Lenawee County, Michigan. The Committee of Colored People of Massillon, Ohio gave him money to establish a school for African American students, believing that Michigan was more hospitable to blacks than Ohio due to a recent increase in racial mob violence. Although the school’s charter suggests that it was an integrated school, in practice the institute catered to the African American community in rural Michigan. The school remained open until the end of the Civil War.