The Reverend John Rankin was a fierce old man who lived with his family on a steep hill in the "free" state of Ohio. From there, he could see down across the Ohio River to Kentucky, where slavery was legal. Every night, all night, a light shone from the Rankin house to guide fugitives to temporary safety on their way north.
The Rankins were “stationmasters” on the Underground Railroad, forming just one link in a secret chain of some 10,000 abolitionists. In the first half of the 19th century, this network carried as many as 100,000 refugees to freedom (around one-quarter of them coming to Canada). It was risky work. Even in the free North, “stealing” slaves was a crime, and some abolitionists were physically attacked by armed slave-catchers who came rampaging north in pursuit of slaves.
The Underground Railroad had nothing to do with trains, though it borrowed railway lingo to describe the transport of fugitives, on foot or in wagons, from safe house to safe house on their journey north. Many of the early “stationmasters” were Quakers, whose religion condemned slavery outright. By the 1850s, however, the movement was much larger and more general. In fact, it was the most massive example of civil disobedience (which is when citizens knowingly refuse to obey the law) in American history. Though many of the activists were white, the bravest – for they had the most to lose – were the Blacks themselves, both slave and free.