Most of the stories we have about the Underground Railroad in Richland County were written down in the generations immediately following the Civil War.
When slavery was abolished there was no more need for Conductors to keep quiet about their adventures and so, like all veterans who sigh with relief when the battle ends, all of those underground workers were happy to tell their stories.
And once the abolition of slavery vindicated their acts of defying the law, our community was quick to embrace those courageous souls who had risked their own safety in order to help others in dire need.
Twenty years after the war the local Underground Railroad stories were collected together and published in the official County History.
These tales became the established local legacy. The names became familiar, and their exploits became anecdotes the community could own and be proud of.
There was one story however, that did not get recorded in Richland County. It took generations to gather all the pieces from faraway places to assemble the story.
This was one local Conductor who didn’t tell his story—who never wanted to be known and recognized as having taken part in the underground.
His friends, family, and his business associates were all still really sore about the Civil War, and they were bitter about the end of slavery. The last thing he wanted was for them to find out he had any role in aiding the enemy.
The truth is he never wanted to be a Conductor in the first place.
It happened quite accidentally, spontaneously, and in direct contravention of his own beliefs.
This story started when a runaway slave showed up in Shelby, Ohio.
He had walked in on the railroad tracks from Galion, and was strolling down West Main Street one morning in 1854.
He paused for a moment along the sidewalk to look into a storefront window, and the shopkeeper inside saw him silhouetted against the bright day outside.
The businessman, always eager to make a sale, opened his door.
He was astonished to find a black man standing there. There were no black people living in Shelby in 1854. There were teenage kids who grew up in Shelby who had never even seen a black person in their entire lives.
The shopkeeper was startled and flummoxed. It didn’t take him but a second to recognize that he was looking at a runaway: the man’s clothes had that worn look like they had been slept in for days, or weeks.
Without thinking the shopkeeper motioned the black man into his store.
Quite honestly, he didn’t want anyone on the street to see a black man peering in his window.
Once the stranger was inside however, a whole new problem presented itself: how to get the black man back out of there.
Any of the other businessmen on the street would have simply summoned the sheriff to take him away. The leaders of Shelby’s business community back then were quite vocal in their opposition to anybody who would abolish slavery.
When an Abolition Society tried to gain a foothold in Sharon Township they had to hold their meeting at a church outside of town. They were pelted with eggs and their carriages were vandalized.
Anti-slavery candidates were vilified in the town newspaper, and Shelby’s most influential businessman regularly wrote scathing letters to newspapers in Ohio, New York and Washington DC scorning anyone in power who suggested that slaves were human beings.
The shopkeeper knew that his Shelby Main Street place of business was threatened the instant anyone found out he had a runaway slave inside his store.
He had to get the fugitive out of the building without anyone knowing about it. Which meant: he had to get the man out of town.
Without intending to, the shopkeeper had begun thinking like a Conductor of the Underground Railroad.
A Moral Conflict
It is important to understand that this shopkeeper was not a bad person. He had been taught and convinced that slavery, as an institution, was sanctioned by God.
All of the Shelby businessmen were church-going Christians who earnestly believed the Bible verses from Old and New Testament that supported the sentiment of Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves, obey your earthly Masters with fear and trembling.”
They really believed that opposing slavery was opposing the Bible.
Our shopkeeper’s moral dilemma had no easy answer in 1854. Within a decade hundreds of thousands of people would die in the US over this very same question the shopkeeper faced: what do I do with this slave?
Connecting the Dots
This Richland narrative is pieced together from sources that were from everywhere except Richland County.
Part of it was recorded north of here in Sandusky; part of it comes from south of here in Morrow County; and the key parts were written in Kansas where an old man in the 1890s remembered his boyhood in Ohio.
From these assembled parts there is much we know, and yet so much more we don’t know.
We don’t know what the runaway slave’s name was.
We do know he walked by himself all the way from Alabama to Shelby.
That is over 600 miles and involves getting across the Ohio River somehow. This in itself was no small feat in the years after 1850 when the Fugitive Slave Law incited hundreds of slave-catchers to patrol the river hoping to earn some reward money.
We know he ate a meal in Galion.
We know he passed through the village of Iberia, 6 miles south of Galion, because he was mentioned in the records of folks at the anti-slavery Iberia College.
And he walked 16 miles from Galion to Shelby on the tracks of the CC&C Railroad.
It was in Shelby that his escape story became intertwined with that of the Underground Railroad, even though there were no known Conductors of the Underground Railroad in that town.
Traditional Underground Railroad lore infers that the fugitive slaves who made it to freedom were dependent on the network of secret assistance once they left the south, but the story of this runaway in Shelby proves otherwise.
This black man wasn’t looking for help. The white man was certainly not intending to help him.
But circumstances made it suddenly necessary. The shopkeeper was not the only one who had seen the black man on the streets of Shelby.
The Hazards of Main Street
Shelby was not a big place in 1854: it didn’t take long for the news to spread that there was a black man seen downtown; and it didn’t take much consideration to assume that any black man in Shelby was a runaway slave.
There were a number of men in and around Shelby for whom this sighting was very good news. These men earned extra cash in their spare time by hunting down fugitives for the reward money. This far north a wanted man might possibly bring anywhere from $100 to $300.
They immediately started scouring the alleys of town, and running their hounds through the nearby woodlots.
The slave catchers were keeping an especially close eye on the Mansfield & Sandusky Rail Road depot on Main Street, because the M&S ran to Sandusky, which was a famously designated port of call for shipping runaway slaves across Lake Erie to Canada.
The Shelby shopkeeper needed to figure out a way to get his fugitive charge on to that train somehow.
His solution was pretty ingenious.
A Death in the Family
The shopkeeper had a friend who was an undertaker, and he convinced his friend to make arrangements to ship a coffin north on the afternoon M&S run to Sandusky.
They laid out the fugitive in a traditional pine box, and nailed down the lid.
Then they recruited a couple pretty women in black to stand at the station and weep while the coffin was loaded onto the train. It was enough of a distraction so that none of the suspicious slave hunters took the trouble to examine the coffin: because they surely would have noticed the box had carefully drilled air holes.
The end of this adventure for the escaped slave is documented from sources in Sandusky who were able to attest to his successful arrival on the train from Shelby; and his successful departure across Lake Erie on the steamboat Arrow.
They made note that when the coffin was pried open at the Sandusky depot the poor fugitive had to be resuscitated after a severe nervous breakdown.
The Shelby shopkeeper’s epilogue is the far more unusual ending for an Underground Railroad narrative.
We like to celebrate the courage shown by our forbears because it seems to light a path of encouraging possibilities for future generations, but it is not likely the brave shopkeeper’s name will ever be known.
It is with the kind of anonymous homage we pay to the Unknown Soldier we must acknowledge the Shelby shopkeeper’s legacy of selflessness in our community.