Coming for to carry me home

The regional impact of The Emancipation Proclamation and The Underground Railroad

By Leo DeLuca
Photo: Abraham Lincoln [third from left] at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet; photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Less than four years after campaigning for the United States Presidency on Dayton’s Old Courthouse steps, Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation and sparked the nation toward abolishing slavery. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the celebrated order, declaring, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” While the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery illegal, the Emancipation Proclamation set liberty in motion.

In the Union free state of Ohio, the famed Proclamation also impacted the legendary Underground Railroad. A covert resistance network dedicated to fostering escaped slaves; the Underground Railroad was a heroic cause. In fact, it was a mass movement of civil disobedience formed by people willing to risk their lives for the freedom of others.

Along secret routes, The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses owned by abolitionists, Quakers, free blacks and more. Resting on the border of the Union slave state of Kentucky, Southwest Ohio was frequently the first stop for many fleeing slaves. Our area was absolutely vital to The Underground Railroad’s success. According to noted author and public historian, Velma Maia Thomas, some of the greatest examples of ambiguity in African-American spirituals are thought to reference our region:

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home.

Sometimes I’m up and sometimes I’m down,

Coming for to carry me home

But still my soul feels heavenly bound.

Coming for to carry me home”

In dissecting “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”   Thomas notes that the “chariot” is believed to symbolize The Underground Railroad; “Jordan,” the Ohio River; “the band of angels,” The Underground Railroad’s conductors; and “heavenly bound,” the journey north toward free land. The timeless song ends:

“If I get there before you do,

Coming for to carry me home

I’ll cut a hole and pull you through.

Coming for to carry me home

If you get there before I do,

Coming for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m coming too.

Coming for to carry me home”

While the Emancipation Proclamation did signal slavery’s demise, The Underground Railroad saw fit to continue until the institution was officially outlawed in 1865. A Civil War effort, the proclamation aimed to free slaves in Rebel states, strip the Confederacy of its power and reunite the nation.

Slaves had been an essential component for Confederate war efforts and their labor was integral to Rebel factories, hospitals, shipping yards and more. News of the proclamation threw a wrench in the Confederate war machine and encouraged thousands of slaves to flee to Union lines.

Local researcher Bennie J. McRae Jr., a resident of nearby Trotwood, Ohio, has made great efforts to ensure that African Americans’ role in military history is not forgotten. In speaking with McRae, he notes that “many enlisted in the Union army or navy, and others were employed by the Union forces. The young, women and elderly were placed in contraband camps, however, many women were also hired as nurses, cooks, laundresses and other occupations by the Union forces.” In referencing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln set forth:

“And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said

 designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United

 States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence;

 and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the 

armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels 

of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military

 necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

Confederate General Robert E. Lee grimly and clearly recognized the Emancipation Proclamation’s ability to fortify the Union army. The proclamation made it crucial for the Confederacy to increase its own numbers. Upon the occasion, Lee wrote: “In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he (Lincoln) has proclaimed, which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.” Lee was defeated.

While the Emancipation Proclamation granted all those enslaved in Confederate territory their freedom, it was not applicable to the five slave states that were not in rebellion, or to most locales already under the Union army’s jurisdiction. In turn, slavery was still legal in certain areas and The Underground Railroad persisted.

With slavery’s perpetuation in certain U.S. regions, The Underground Railroad only grew stronger. This had also been true after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 – the federal law declaring that all runaway slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters. Paradoxically, while these acts would seemingly dampen the spirit of The Underground Railroad, their further illustration of liberty’s requisite only served to make it stronger.

Unfortunately, House Representative and Dayton Empire editor Clement Vallandingham scared many runaway slaves from the Gem City with his pro-slavery sentiments. Vallandingham, leader of the Copperhead anti-war faction, felt the federal government had no power to regulate slavery or alter states’ rights. To the delight of many, President Lincoln deported Vallandingham to the Confederacy roughly five months after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Vallandingham did, however, eventually separate himself from the Deep South Confederacy, changing his views in support of the New Departure. The Departure’s purpose was to bury “out of sight all that is of the dead past, namely, the right of secession, slavery, inequality before the law, and political inequality.” It aimed to secure universal political rights and equality for all races. Vallandingham was buried in Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery in 1871 after accidentally shooting himself in the head. He was attempting to illustrate a murder suspect’s innocence to defense attorney friends, but mistakenly employed a loaded pistol.

While Copperhead sentiment somewhat stunted Underground Railroad activity in Dayton proper, it was certainly alive. The Ohio Historical Society recognizes that “during his adult life, James Davis was an Underground Railroad activist in Dayton, Ohio.” In addition, renowned Underground Railroad historian Wilbur H. Seibert found there were two Underground Railroad routes into  Montgomery County and seven out of the county. Seibert was a professor at The Ohio State University from 1891-1935. He collected research material on The Underground Railroad for over fifty years.

In addition, Joshua Dunbar, father to famed African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, escaped north via The Underground Railroad and eventually settled in Dayton. Born at 311 Howard St. on the city’s west side, Dunbar was the first African-American poet to receive national distinction and acclaim. In 1969, renowned author and poet Maya Angelou named her groundbreaking autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings after a line in the third stanza of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.”

Many Greater Dayton locales were involved in Underground Railroad activity as well. As stated by Bennie J. McRae Jr., investigation “has shown the areas east of Cincinnati along the Ohio River were very active in assisting escaped slaves with safe houses and trails northward to Canada.”

According to the Springboro Chamber of Commerce, the city boasts “more safe houses for runaway slaves than any other place in Ohio. That rich history is a source of pride for the city and local historians.” In addition, The Springboro Historical Society and Springboro Chamber of Commerce facilitate a self-guided walking tour that details “the vast network of safe houses and tunnels.”

Along the Springboro Underground Railroad tour, one can find the home of founder Jonathan Wright. A devout Quaker, Wright was instrumental in The Underground Railroad. His house at 80 W. State St. is currently operated as a bed and breakfast and is open for tours by appointment. The Chamber of Commerce recognizes the home as “an important Underground Railroad depot.” They also note “a hiding place built into the attic floor has been opened up and may be seen from one of the guest rooms. The western chimney is whitewashed on only one side. This is a sign to runaway slaves that the house was a station on the journey north to freedom.”

As discovery could prove fatal, Underground Railroad activity was kept extremely discreet and documentation is often scant. That said, substantial evidence confirms our region was instrumental in the fight against slavery. Area ancestors risked their lives for the freedom of others.

Nonetheless, as we celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and recognize our regional involvement in The Underground Railroad, let us not forget that justice’s work is never-ending and the fight for equality still persists. Throughout history, the Dayton area has made honorable efforts in the struggle for freedom. With the 150th anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation upon us, let us refer to the most principled moments of our region’s past as an exceptional precedent for future days.

Reach DCP freelance writer Leo DeLuca at

Tags: ,

One Response to “Coming for to carry me home” Subscribe