Cincinnati Art Museum Discovering the Story Discovering the Story

Overview | Background | Lessons | Art Enrichment Activities | Video | Videoconference | Student Work | Glossary | Resources

The Underground Railroad

Charles T. Webber (1825-1911)
United States (Cincinnati)
The Underground Railroad, 1893
Subscription Fund Purchase, 1927.26
See larger picture



Charles T. Webber (1825-1911)
United States
The Underground Railroad, 1893
Subscription Fund Purchase, 1927.26 

The Underground Railroad is a history painting, a tradition that was very popular in nineteenth-century America because it was both educational and entertaining. History painting was commended because it often told a story with a moral and encouraged viewers to contemplate the subject matter that it depicted.

The subject of this work is the Underground Railroad, which today has become an American legend. The Underground Railroad was not a systematic means of transportation, rather a secretive process that allowed fugitive slaves to escape from oppression in the years prior to the Civil War.

There are three known figures in this painting: Levi Coffin (1798–1877); his wife, Catharine Coffin; and Hannah Haydock, all of whom were friends of Webber. The Coffins were legendary in helping runaway slaves escape to freedom in the North, and Levi is often referred to as “President” of the Underground Railroad.

A native of North Carolina, Levi Coffin moved to Cincinnati in 1847 to open a wholesale warehouse that handled only items produced by free labor, including cotton, sugar and spices. Due to its geographic location, with only the Ohio River separating it from the slave- holding state of Kentucky, Cincinnati was an important station on the Underground Railroad. Many slaves made their way up from the South and passed through Cincinnati on their way to freedom in the North.

Coffin and his wife continued their abolitionist efforts while in Cincinnati. They actively provided transportation for runaway slaves, often using their farm carriages. This is the event that is depicted in Webber’s The Underground Railroad. In the painting, Coffin, his wife, and noted abolitionist Hannah Haydock are leading a group of African Americans to freedom. Levi is standing in the wagon, helping the people out of it. Catharine is shown helping an elderly man walk though the snow. Haydock is to the left, helping a young child with his parcels. Although some of the whites in this painting are identified, the identities of the African Americans are not known. Catharine has no coat or gloves, which suggests that she has just come outside of the house to help unload the passengers. Levi and some of the runaways look cautiously behind them to make certain that they have not been followed. The scene takes place on a wintry morning, just after the break of dawn, perhaps at the Coffin farm, which was located between Avondale and Walnut Hills.

Webber painted The Underground Railroad in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago, Illinois. This work was created many years after the Civil War when the Underground Railroad was no longer necessary. The Underground Railroad does not depict an actual event; instead, it was created as a celebration of the abolitionists’ labors and their moral struggle against slavery. This painting celebrates the heroic efforts of Levi and Catharine Coffin and Hannah Haydock, and their role in helping to provide freedom for all people. It also has a universal message: Individuals can make significant differences in the lives of those less fortunate if they are courageous enough to take the risk.


Charles T. Webber (1825-1911)

Charles T. Webber was born in Cayuga County, New York, in 1825. As a child, he became interested in art and would often draw and paint, using the attic of a woodshed as his studio. Despite his interest, he received no formal art training as a youth.

By 1844, Webber was living in Springfield, Ohio, about seventy-five miles northwest of Cincinnati. While there, he was befriended by the artist John Peter Frankenstein (1817–1881), who was apparently Webber’s first and only teacher in the field of painting. During the mid-1850s, Webber began painting portraits and teaching students of his own.

In 1858, Webber moved from Springfield to Covington, Kentucky. He soon found employment tinting photographs in the Cincinnati studio of David R. Hoag. Webbers’s next venture was the opening of the Artists’ Photographic and Picture Gallery on West Fourth Street with his partners, artists Joseph Oriel Eaton (1829–1875) and James Mullen (dates unknown). The trio offered “Photographs taken on canvas and Painted in Oil. Also Portraits Painted from Life…”

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, the business was dissolved. Webber then moved into his own studio at 14 East Fourth Street. He remained in that studio until the early 1880s.

Webber was very active in the artistic climate of Cincinnati. He was a founding member of the Cincinnati Sketch Club, a group of artists who would meet to practice various painting and drawing exercises. In 1886, Webber was also elected president of the Associated Artists of Cincinnati.

Webber continued his role as an art educator by teaching a life class at the Ohio Mechanics Institute School of Design in 1878. His friends and colleagues in other cities often tried to persuade Webber to leave Cincinnati, but he never would. Although he never studied abroad, Webber’s work was included in the exhibition of the 1881 Paris Salon.

Throughout his life, Webber created hundreds of paintings, including portraits, landscapes, genre subjects and historical scenes. In the 1890s, he was regarded as Cincinnati’s senior resident artist, and he remained active in the art community here until his death in 1911. As a tribute to Webber, his artist friends in Cincinnati started a subscription fund to purchase The Underground Railroad for the Cincinnati Art Museum. This gesture demonstrates the devotion and esteem others in the Queen City had for him.


By the late 1700s, many states in the North had completely outlawed slavery, and beginning as early as the 1770s, individuals bound in slavery sought freedom. Traveling on a secret path from the South to the North, these freedom seekers followed a system of routes and safe houses that connected the slaveholding South with the free states of the North and West, as well as the free countries of Canada, Mexico and the Western Caribbean.

This system of safe houses and routes to the North received its more common name in the 1830s. Taking the title the Underground Railroad, this system was neither underground nor a railroad. The term underground referred to the illegal activity associated with the slave’s escape, and the term railroad was used because of the newness of rail travel in the country. On the Underground Railroad, routes to the North were referred to as “lines,” safe houses were “stations,” the individuals who assisted them along the way were “conductors” and the fugitives were referred to as “packages” or “freight.” The Underground Railroad operated for over 75 years during which time thousands of individuals fled the South. In the years coming up to the American Civil War, the mid–1830s to 1860s, the movement gained strength and notoriety among abolitionists in the North, and many were eager to help.

This eagerness to assist the escaped slave became quite difficult with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. This new legislation, replacing a similar and more lenient legislation of 1793, favored Southern slave owners and ruled that these individuals had the legal right to retrieve runaway slaves from free northern states. Along with this right to retrieval, the Fugitive Slave Law allowed for heavy financial and criminal penalties for any individual who assisted an escaped slave or hindered slave owners from retaining slaves while in northern states. The Fugitive Slave Law also required citizens in the North to help federal marshals in the apprehension of fugitive slaves or face imprisonment and/or fines.

Instead of running in fear and giving up on their duty, those individuals who worked on the Underground Railroad instead became more diligent in their efforts, and soon stops existed throughout Ohio and other free states. In Ohio, the Underground Railroad was efficient and well organized with several people working to help the freedom seekers reach freedom in Canada. In all there were nearly three thousand miles of routes, most bound for Canada, that crisscrossed the state, and close to twenty-five points of crossing from the South along the Ohio River. The movement in the state reached its peak level of activity in the 1840s, when more stations existed in Ohio than in any other state. It is estimated that at least 40,000 freedom seekers passed through state during this time.

Ohio was home to several prominent abolitionists, all of whom played a key role in the Underground Railroad. Among these individuals were Levi Coffin and his wife, Catherine, Quakers who moved to Cincinnati in the late 1840s. Known for their work in Southern Indiana, the Coffins dedicated their life to helping escaped slaves, and it is thought that they helped more than three thousand slaves reach freedom. They opened their home at all hours of the day and night and provided a safe haven, warm meal and clothing for all runaways who appeared on their doorstep. Levi’s active participation and dedication to the Underground Railroad caused his fellow abolitionists to bestow upon him the title "President of the Underground Railroad."

Fifty miles east of Cincinnati in Ripley, Ohio, John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, also opened his home to slaves seeking freedom. Rankin left the South in 1821, freed his slaves and settled in Ripley. Standing on a hill three hundred feet above the Ohio River, Rankin’s home shone like a beacon to escaping slaves. As a signal to escaping slaves, he would shine a lantern in his front window to signal when it was safe for them to cross the river. Many of the slaves who first stopped at the Rankin home were then passed onto Levi Coffin in Cincinnati, who then passed them north to Canada.

John Rankin’s neighbor John P. Parker was born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1827. In 1845, he bought his freedom and moved to Cincinnati and soon after moved to Ripley. There he became an active member of the Underground Railroad. Working with Rankin, Parker spent nearly fifteen years risking his own freedom to help escaped slaves cross the river to safety.

The work of these figures came to the forefront with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Stowe moved to Ohio in 1832 and lived in Cincinnati for the next eighteen years. While living in the city, she came in contact with abolitionists like Levi Coffin and John Rankin. The novel’s most well-known scene revolves around Eliza crossing the icy Ohio River with her baby. This is based on a true story of a young woman who, upon crossing into Ohio, sought shelter with the Rankins in Ripley. It is then thought that she moved on to find help with the Quakers, and it is believed that this refers to the Coffins of Cincinnati.

The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 spurred on an already-heated debate over slavery that was occurring in Cincinnati, as well as in other cities across Ohio and the North. Abolitionists like Levi Coffin and John Rankin, along with several others, insisted that slavery should be abolished and that slaves should be given rights as citizens. While others, like then Congressman Abraham Lincoln, thought it best to send slaves back to Africa, and still others thought that the future of southern slaves should be left to their owners.

By 1861, it seemed that the slavery question was tearing the country apart. When the first shots were fired in the spring of that year, the country found itself in a Civil War, which would last four years, with the issue of slavery at its core. The war provided many slaves with the perfect opportunity for escape, and many of these individuals traveled through Ohio on their way to Canada. The work of the Underground Railroad in Ohio as well as the rest of the North came to an end in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln, now president, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves who were still living in confederate states. The Civil War soon ended, and with the signing of the 13 th Amendment, slavery was abolished in all the states of the Union.



Between 1502 and 1860, more than 10 million African people were forcibly transported to the Americas. Brought in the largest majority to the Caribbean, Brazil and the Spanish colonies of Central and South America, only about six percent were traded in the British colonies of North America.

The slave trade was controlled mainly by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, and most Africans brought to North America came from the diverse cultures of western and west central Africa. They were from territories that are today the countries of Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. Large numbers also came from the areas that are now the countries of Senegal, Gambia and Angola.

The captured Africans were brought to the Americas in specially constructed ships. These ships had platforms below the main deck that were designed to maximize the numbers of slaves that could be transported. Confined for two to three months in irons as the ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean, these individuals barely survived on a meager diet of rice, yams and beans. The filthy conditions and tight quarters resulted in a very high death rate, and many ships reached their destinations with only half their slaves still alive.


August 1619 marked the beginning of the slave trade in the English colonies, for it was then that a Dutch slave ship brought the first slaves to Jamestown, Virginia, to be sold. Many of the Africans that were brought to the thirteen colonies worked as farmers. In fact, many were enslaved expressly for their experience in growing rice, and in cattle herding. South Carolina planters were attracted to those slaves from West Africa, as they had extensive knowledge in cultivating rice, that colony’s first major export crop. In the Southern states of Maryland , Virginia and North Carolina, slaves also grew tobacco and indigo. In the northern colonies, slaves and free blacks also worked as farmers, as household staff, sailors, preachers, accountants, music teachers, medical assistants, blacksmiths, bricklayers and carpenters. These people were called upon to do any work needed by the fledgling colonies, and by 1750, those of African descent totaled over twenty percent, nearly 240,000 people, of the population living in the thirteen colonies.

Over the 170 years of African enslavement at least 95 percent of blacks in America lived in slavery. In contrast, many of the colonies also had a small number of free African Americans. Starting as early as the 1600s, some slaves gained their freedom by buying themselves or by being bought by relatives. Since slavery was inherited through the status of the mother, some African Americans gained their freedom if they were born to free mothers, while others gained their freedom as a reward for commendable acts or long proficient labor.


In 1763, upon the defeat of the French to the British in the French and Indian War, the British shifted their relationship with the American colonies and began to take on more control. They increased taxes, demanded that the colonists pay for British soldiers in the colonies and controlled trade opportunities. This outraged many colonists, as they felt that Britain did not have the right to tax them if it did not allow them to have representation at the Houses of Parliament in London.

Colonists, both black and white, worked together to fight British policies. Throughout the 1760s, these colonists targeted British officials and soldiers, often rebelling against the several new regulations forced on the colonies. One notable revolt occurred in 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a fugitive slave, led a crowd of black and white sailors and laborers in attacking the British guard at Boston 's customs office. In response to the attack, the soldiers fired into the crowd, wounding six and killing Attucks and four others. For rebellious Americans, this event, known as the Boston Massacre, symbolized Britain 's determination to deny the colonists of their rights.

When the American Revolution began in 1775, all but 25,000 of the 500,000 blacks in the colonies were slaves. Inspired by American proclamations of freedom, many slaves and free blacks fought with the white colonists against the British. At first, General George Washington refused to recruit black troops. However, it was the British decision to free and enlist African Americans that eventually caused him to change his position. In November of 1775 Lord Dunmore, the British colonial governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that all slaves belonging to a revolutionist would be freed and accepted into the British military. Due to this action and the demands of war, Washington soon began to recruit black soldiers, promising them their freedom. Before the war was over, more than 5000 African Americans, from every state except Georgia and South Carolina, served in the rebel army.

The concept of slavery was important to the American patriots. They felt it was the opposite of liberty and served as a standard against which they measured their own freedom. They warned continually that they would not be denied their rights, oftentimes saying that they must not be the “slaves” of Britain. These ideals emphasized the inappropriateness of slavery in a free land, and slaves soon appealed for their freedom. Citing the Declaration of Independence, they hoped that men who wrote words like “all men are created equal” would realize that continuing to enslave their fellow countrymen was wrong. Unfortunately, the American Revolution did not bring slavery to an end, and it soon became a thriving industry for the new nation, especially in the states to the south.


The ideals of the Revolution proved a powerful argument against slavery, and soon states in the North began to act upon those ideals. Starting with Vermont in 1777, one northern state after another either abolished slavery or passed gradual emancipation laws that freed slave children as they reached adulthood. By the mid-1820s, practically all the slaves in the United States lived in southern states. It was in these southern states, where cotton soon replaced rice and tobacco as an important plantation crop, that slavery thrived for the next eighty-six years.

Cotton and the 1793 invention of the cotton gin radically changed the economic face of the South. This invention allowed for the quick processing of cotton, thus allowing this cash crop to soar. As a result, more slave labor was dedicated to cotton production, slave prices increased, the value of cotton rose sharply and by 1815 cotton was America 's most valuable export. This caused the economic and political power of cotton-growing states, often called the Cotton Kingdom, to grow accordingly.

Slave life was greatly influenced by where these individuals lived and worked, be it in the city or on a plantation. In the city, slaves worked in households or for small businessmen and merchants. While on plantations, experienced slaves built buildings, crafted decorative furnishings, prepared elaborate meals, supplied music for formal balls and provided services ranging from veterinary care to medical care to for both whites and blacks. Many plantations employed small numbers of slaves as household servants, however most slaves worked in the fields. While plantation life was hard and dangerous, the large numbers of slaves allowed for greater opportunities for establishing slave families and communities.

As the South expanded into the southwest states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, and as tobacco and rice cultivation gave way to cotton, the work of slaves changed. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slaves working on plantations often worked under the task system. Under this system, a slave was given a task at the start of the day, worked at it until it was complete and then was free to do personal tasks for the rest of the day. The tasks were extremely hard, but the worker had some control over the pace of work and the length of the workday.

This task system changed with the introduction of cotton to the lower South. On these larger southern plantations, slaves worked in groups called gangs. They were led by the driver, a slave selected for leadership ability, who supervised his fellow field laborers. These gangs worked fields and did everything from plowing, planting, cultivating and picking, depending on the season. This system, unlike the task system, left slaves with little control over their work schedule and left almost no time for personal tasks or family.


The first United States census of 1790 recorded that there were nearly 60,000 free blacks and over 690,000 slaves living in the country. In both the North and the South, free blacks lived in the largest numbers in urban areas. They found that cities provided more employment opportunities and a larger group of people willing to support black churches and schools.

Like their slave counterparts, these free African Americans faced many obstacles and prejudices. Whether living in the North, where slavery had been abolished, or the South, these individuals were not truly free. They were often barred from schools, restricted to living and farming in undesirable areas and forbidden from practicing trades and opening businesses. They were also segregated from whites when using public transportation and when attending public church worship. In addition, they were restricted from voting and in many states, could not serve on juries or testify against whites.

Among other restrictions, free blacks were also prohibited from immigrating to the states of Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. In Illinois they were threatened with bondage if they attempted to live in the state on a permanent basis. In addition, the state of Ohio, in 1807, passed a series of black codes that required free blacks to pay $500 before they could settle in the state. This fee was intended as a guarantee of good behavior and self-support on the part of the free black. Restrictive laws, like these, caused free individuals to live under constant uncertainty and threat.

Starting as early as the 1780s, free African Americans living in northern cities established hundreds of mutual aid societies, churches, and fraternal organizations for the purpose of support and camaraderie. These organizations provided monetary support for widows, orphans, the ill, the unemployed and for burials. One of the first examples of this type of cooperative organization, the Free African Society, was founded in 1787 by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. Churches were also among the first organizations established by free blacks. They fulfilled a community’s need for a central institution that served their sacred, social and political needs.


The purpose of many of the African-American community groups that were created in the 1830s was to promote racial advancement and to oppose slavery. Starting in the year 1830, these community groups began to send delegates to an Annual National Negro Convention, where they discussed strategies for abolition and racial advancement. While these African Americans worked with white supporters as part of integrated antislavery organizations, they were also very determined to let their own voices be heard. Examples of these early abolitionist activities included political and historical pamphlets like David Walker's militant Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829). The first black-owned and operated newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was founded in New York in 1827 by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish. Ten years later, Cornish went on to become the editor of the New York newspaper, Colored American.

In 1831, the antislavery cause gained significant visibility when William Lloyd Garrison, a white Boston newspaper editor, and his newspaper, TheLiberator, called for the immediate abolition of slavery. Acting against his pacifist tendencies, Garrison published excerpts from David Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which called for slaves to revolt. Answering the call that summer, Nat Turner, a slave, led a revolt and killed more than 50 whites, including women and children, in Virginia. As a result of this antislavery propaganda, many southern states offered rewards for Walker, and Garrison and the publishers of The Liberator prohibited any further circulation of the paper.

Garrison soon attracted a large group of followers throughout the North, and in 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) was organized and consisted of many of his supporters, both black and white. By 1835, there were more than 400 local AASS societies, and by 1838, there were over 1,200 with more than 250,000 members. The goal of AASS members was to convince Americans that slavery was morally wrong, and they argued for the immediate freeing of all slaves living in the South. Unfortunately, their attempts to convince the United States Congress and major religious denominations of their antislavery goals met with little victory.


Antislavery societies, like the AASS and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, worked with black churches and black aid societies throughout the North in a large informally organized escape network known as the Underground Railroad. This loose network of antislavery northerners helped freedom-seeking slaves reach safety in the free states of the West, and in the free countries of Mexico and Canada. While most escaped slaves found aid only once they reached the North, some were aided by conductors like Harriet Tubman who traveled back and forth into the South to lead people to freedom.

Many slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad came from the states of the upper South. States like Virginia and Kentucky were in very close proximity to the North and allowed for a quick escape and immediate help from the people working on the railroad. These individuals generally traveled by night to avoid detection and used the North Star, also known as the Drinking Gourd, for guidance. They typically looked for isolated farms or sympathetic free blacks and whites who could effectively hide them from slave hunters. When possible, conductors would meet freedom seekers at border points like Cincinnati, Ohio, or Wilmington, Delaware, and proceed in leading them to ports on the Great Lakes. From these lake ports, escaped slaves could quickly flee to Canada. Among the most famous conductors on the Underground Railroad were Harriet Tubman, called the Moses of the Blacks, and Levi Coffin, a Cincinnati Quaker who was known as the President of the Underground Railroad.

As important as the number of escaped slaves arriving safely to the free lands of Canada and the West was the publicity given to work of the Underground Railroad. As the work of these brave people spread throughout the country, many northern whites became even more aware of the evils of slavery. Soon the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 became difficult to enforce as northern judges and legislators, who were sympathetic to the plight of the escaped slave, restricted southern slave masters’ rights to recover escaped slaves in the states of the North.


A growing conflict between the southern slaveholders and northern antislavery activists prompted Congress to negotiate the Compromise of 1850. The act satisfied the antislavery factions by admitting California as a free state and abolishing slave trading in the nation's capital. However, it also pacified the proslavery factions by including a new law that protected slaveholders' rights in the recovery of escaped slaves.

Part of the Compromise of 1850, this new law known as the Fugitive Slave Act was much stronger in its policies against escaped slaves than the earlier Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. Under the act, slave owners or people working on their behalf could follow escaped slaves into the North. Slave catchers needed only a legal affidavit, which described the escaped slave, and the decision of a federal commissioner that a captive was his property to retain that fugitive and take him or her back to the South. The part of the law that angered many abolitionists was the stipulation that required people not involved to help in the capture of slaves or face fines and imprisonment. Many antislavery activists organized vigilance committees to protect fugitive slaves from the increased danger caused by the Fugitive Slave Act, and in doing so helped many evade capture.


Abolitionists were angered further when the Supreme Court ruled against them in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia around 1800 and in 1830 moved with his owner, Peter Blow, to St. Louis . Once there, Blow sold Scott to John Emerson, a U.S. Army surgeon. Emerson and Scott moved to Fort Snelling in 1836, an army post in the territory that is now the state of Minnesota. At this time this territory banned slavery under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which called for a ban of slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territories north and west of the Ohio River.

While at Fort Snelling, Scott married fellow slave Harriet Robinson. In 1837, Emerson returned to St. Louis. Scott and his family stayed on at Fort Snelling for two years, eventually joining Emerson in St. Louis in 1840. Upon Emerson’s death in 1846, Scott sued for freedom for himself and his family. He argued that living at Fort Snelling made them free, and once free they should be allowed to remain so, even upon their return to Missouri.

In January of 1850, the St Louis Circuit Court and a jury of 12 white men ruled that Scott’s residence in a free territory made him free. Unfortunately, in 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed this decision. They argued that because of northern hostility toward southern slave states, Missouri would no longer recognize federal or state laws that might have freed Scott and his family. Undaunted, Scott turned to the U.S. Circuit Court in Missouri in 1854 and renewed his suit for freedom. At this time, Emerson’s brother-in-law John F. A. Sanford owned Scott and his family. Sanford argued that blacks were not United States citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court. Federal Judge Robert Wells ruled that if Scott was a free citizen he was entitled to sue in federal court. However, after a trial, Wells overturned his decision and decided Scott was in fact still a slave.

Soon after Wells’ decision, Scott appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court. The Court heard his case in the spring of 1856. Instead of deciding the case at that time, the Court ordered new arguments, which were to be conducted starting in December of that year. Scott was represented for free by Montgomery Blair and George T. Curtis. Sanford was represented by U.S. Senator Henry S. Geyer of Missouri , and Reverdy Johnson. In March of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled in a seven-to-two decision that Scott was in fact still a slave and therefore was not entitled to sue in court. On May 26, 1857, shortly after the Court’s decision, Scott and his family finally did gain their freedom. The sons of his first owner, Peter Blow, moved by the case, purchased and freed Scott and his family.

Developments like the Dred Scott case led many black and white abolitionists to take a more militant stance in their fight against slavery. An example of this aggressive behavior came when white abolitionist John Brown made his famous raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Although the raid failed and Brown was hanged, many considered the raid the first battle in a war against slavery.


The chief cause of the Civil War was slavery and the expansion of slavery. The main debate between the North and the South was whether slavery should be allowed in the Western territories that had been recently acquired during the Mexican War (1846-1848). Proponents of slavery saw this expansion as a boost to southern economy, which relied almost completely on slave labor. Their northern opponents, while not so much concerned with slavery in the whole, were concerned that the expansion of slavery would cause unfair competition for the free labor of the North.

The war offered new opportunities for many slaves to escape to the North and West. While many white southerners were away fighting the war, their slaves remained on the plantations to work. Many of these slaves, however, saw the absence of the owners as the perfect opportunity for escape and did so by the tens of thousands. In the beginning of the war, some northern commanders returned these escaped slaves to their masters, while others forced them to work for the United States Army. This all changed on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln turned Union war goals toward the complete destruction of slavery. On this date he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of all slaves in all areas of the Confederacy except those already under Union control.

In April 1865, the Union defeated the Confederacy, and slavery throughout the United States finally came to an end. Later that year, the states ratified the thirteenth amendment formally abolishing slavery. The amendment stated: neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. (United States Constitution, Article 13, Section 1) Slavery was finally abolished, however, one question loomed: Where do we go from here?


In March 1865, the U.S. War Department established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau, to handle the aftermath of the Civil War. Formed before the end of the war, the Freedmen’s Bureau realized that they would have to have some system in place to handle the reconstruction of the country in a swift manner. The bureau’s chief responsibility was to furnish food and medical supplies to former slaves. They also established schools throughout the South and helped former slaves learn how to negotiate fair wages and working conditions.

At the end of the war, even with the Freedmen’s Bureau in place, the national government had not yet decided how best to reunify the country. Many felt that the defeated Confederacy should be allowed back into the Union if they simply acknowledged the end of slavery, while others felt that the South’s social, economic and political system needed to be completely reconstructed. Advocating leniency for the South, President Johnson granted forgiveness freely to southern whites. His only requirement for readmitting Confederate states back into the Union was that those states adopt a state constitution that outlawed slavery and renounced secession. Encouraged by Johnson’s leniency, southern planters maintained much of their political power. They even felt the power to pass black codes to restrict the newly freed African Americans from land ownership and from moving about the country freely.

Unhappy with President Johnson’s leniency to the South, in March 1867, Congress passed a series of Reconstruction Acts. These acts divided the former Confederate States into five military districts, each headed by a federal military commander. Under these acts, southern states were required to ratify the 14th Amendment in order to be readmitted to the Union . In 1870, the states furthered the rights of African Americans with the ratification of the15th Amendment, whichprohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race. Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial discrimination in inns, in theaters or on public transportation. The Federal occupation of the South assured former slaves the vote and enabled them to elect black leaders to political office. In 1868, John W. Menard became the first African American elected to the House of Representatives from Louisiana , and in 1870, Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first black person in the Senate. In all during the Reconstruction, twenty African Americans from southern states served in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate.

Southern Democrats in Congress were determined to restore a conservative government to the South. To regain power in state governments, they used violence to keep black voters from the polls. Throughout the Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups continually attacked blacks and their allies. They hoped to limit Republican political power and restrict black opportunities. During this time, hundreds of African Americans were killed for attempting to vote, for challenging segregation, for organizing workers or even for attending school, all of which were newfound and earned freedoms. In 1871, martial law was declared in nine South Carolina counties due to the proliferation of lynchings and beatings of African Americans.

As the Democrats took over state governments from the Republicans, Reconstruction gradually came to an end around 1877. Once back in power in all the southern state governments, the Democrats continued on their course to take away black rights. They achieved this goal in several different ways; they created laws that enforced the separation of blacks and whites, and created the sharecropping system that kept blacks economically dependent on whites. Because northern whites were tired of spending time and money on the South, much of the racial discrimination of southern African Americans went largely unchallenged.


The 1880s saw a proliferation of segregationist legislation. Striving to separate whites and blacks, this series of laws promoting segregation in the South was often called the Jim Crow Laws. Named after an 1830s minstrel show character, Jim Crow was a black slave who embodied all the negative stereotypes of African Americans. One after another, all the southern states fell in line and each passed laws that segregated African Americans from whites and restricted their rights in almost every conceivable way. Examples include: segregated seating on railroad cars in 1881 in Tennessee (soon adopted in all southern states), laws prohibiting blacks and whites from playing checkers together in Alabama , and in Louisiana, rulings that ordered that there be separate entrances for blacks and whites at circuses.

The environment for blacks in the southern states crumbled further in 1883 when the Supreme Court stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional, and in a series of cases the Court also drastically reduced the power of the 14th Amendment's protection of black citizenship rights and narrowed the 15th Amendment’s federal protection of the right to vote. Finally, in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was in fact legal.


At the end of the nineteenth century, blacks living in the North and the South struggled to maintain the rights granted them in the Post-Civil War - Reconstruction era. They struggled alongside their white counterparts on farms throughout the South, and both experienced poverty at the hands of wealthy southern planters. In 1890, they attempted to construct an interracial political party, known as the People’s Party. They recruited African Americans and advocated political equality. Many African Americans saw the People’s Party as possible allies against the racism that threatened their rights, and many risked their lives to campaign for the party’s candidates.

However, with the appeal of white supremacy in the South as a strong force working against them, the party soon began to fall apart, and by 1896, thanks to strong intimidation of white supremacists, the party all but ceased to exist. The Ku Klux Klan's beliefs that all whites were superior to all African Americans meant that whites were never at the bottom of society. In the end, their beliefs were more likable and safer than the idea of an interracial political alliance.

Many African Americans deliberated over the best response to the increase of racial discrimination in the South. Booker T. Washington, a black educator, reacted to this breakdown of rights by encouraging a policy of racial accommodation. He believed that protest aspiring for social integration and political rights would fail in the South. Instead, he implored blacks to acquire occupational skills for economic advancement. He argued that blacks were central to southern labor and urged understanding whites to promote manual and agricultural education for African Americans, and in doing so strengthen the southern economy.

Many college-educated African Americans disagreed with Washington’s views and proceeded to try to win equality through political and social protest. Fellow intellectuals like Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, William Monroe Trotter and W.E.B. Du Bois were among those individuals who established the first all-black groups whose soul priority was integration. Groups like the African American Council, the Niagara Movement, and in 1909, the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) demanded civil rights, and their main goal was to work against the Jim Crow system.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, black urban societies in the South grew as many agricultural workers sought work and the safety of the city. As black urban communities grew, a broader range of social institutions and educational opportunities were made available to blacks. The growth in the size and literacy of the urban black populace stimulated cultural and intellectual activity. As the century turned, African Americans gained a strong footing in the United States, and their contribution to the cultural fabric of this country is witnessed and celebrated today.


Additional Resources Glossary The Cincinnati Wing About Discovering the Story Educators Videoconference Underground Railroad Cincinnati's Golden Age

©2023 Cincinnati Art Museum