~by John Johnson~
Conductors on the Most Secret Railroad
Hello everyone! Thank you for joining the tour today! My name is John and I will be talking a little bit about how the Underground Railroad actually worked. We’ve all heard about this legendary network, but its actual logistics have remained hidden and sometimes even lost to history. Luckily, we have some documentary evidence about both broad and very specific aspects of the Underground Railroad, even here in Ithaca.
The Underground Railroad was supported by all types of people, serving different roles to aid slaves in their escape northward. One of the most active groups in the abolitionist movement were the Quakers. The Quakers were pacifists that believed all people, regardless of their race, should be treated as equal. Therefore, they were strongly against slavery and were often part of the Underground Railroad.
In Cornell’s Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, we have precious documents about the Quakers’ activity. A good example is Mordecai J. Benedict of Alum Creek, Ohio. As a Quaker, Mordecai grew up to be an abolitionist and he was involved in the Underground Railroad. He helped drive wagon loads of fugitives since he was six-years-old, learning the routes and stops of this operation. And numerous times, he risked his life to help fugitive slaves escape to freedom. He was interviewed in 1926 when he was eighty-one years old: he recalled having the floors of his dining room and sitting room covered with sleeping fugitive slaves. He would help these people to get to the next station of the Underground Railroad, providing them with useful information on how to reach other station located in all directions, such as a station near Marion where slaves at Alum Creek were often conducted. But before departing for the next stop, as a well-known philanthropist and Quaker, Mordecai spared no expenses and spared no pains to provide the fugitive slaves with safe refuge. Many parts of his house were modified with false partitions, creating secret rooms. His cellar alone contained two secret rooms, enough to hide dozens of refugees.
Joseph Eaton was another operator who was located northeast of Delaware, whose activity is documented in the May Anti-Slavery Collection. The next stop from Joseph’s was through the woods to Daniel Benedict, the father of Mordecai. The Benedict Family was numerous, having over 106 members within sixteen miles of each other. They essentially formed a network of houses to help fugitive slaves. They built large brick houses to receive fugitive slaves and concealed them in barns or out-buildings.
This network was also expanded by extended family, such as Griffith Levering, an in-law of the Benedicts. Although he disliked hiding fugitive slaves, his home was used to conceal slaves in cases of emergency.
This whole effort is nicely encapsulated by Reuben Benedict’s, another station master of the Benedict family, mentality: he knew without a doubt that he should befriend liberty-loving fugitive slaves. Because of this, he willingly cared for them and his family shared the same values.
Another Quaker settlement was in Greenwich. Willis R. Smith and his sons were defiers of the Fugitive Slave Act like all Underground Railroad operators. They were one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad in Ohio before the final destination of Canada. The Smith family conveyed passengers to many destinations but often to Huron on the shore of Lake Erie, where they could be transported on vessels to Canada.
Many brave people risked punishment for violating the Fugitive Slave Act by helping escaping slaves. These people were often operators on the Underground Railroad and many of them were Quakers. Their religious ideology and personal morals influenced them to take on the enormous risk to help fellow human beings. Thanks to their efforts and the efforts of many others, an estimated one-hundred thousand slaves escaped bondage.
Tompkins County was also a stopping point for many slaves escaping from the South. As you are learning through our tour, Ithaca represented a crucial stop on the Underground Railroad. I will tell you the story of two individuals who were important figures for the Underground Railroad in Ithaca.
At 112 North Aurora Street was located the law office of Ben Johnson; adjoined was the barber shop of George A. Johnson’s father. The barber George A. Johnson was an active stationmaster. Not only did he provide shelter, clothing, and money to the fugitive slaves, but he also changed their appearances by giving them haircuts. He worked together with his friend Ben Johnson, who was a lawyer. Ben Johnson was affiliated with the abolitionist movement. He also provided money for fugitive slaves. In addition, they worked together to provide job placements and housing accommodations for those who decided to stay in Ithaca instead of continuing to Canada.
However, these Underground Railroad safe houses were poorly documented since they were participants in an illegal operation. The Fugitive Slave Act made it illegal for anyone to assist in the escape of slaves from the South. So, how can we assess if the story of Ben Johnson and George Johnson is real?
Well, we have something called the Wellman Scale that assesses the likelihood of a site being one that was part of the Underground Railroad. The scale goes from Level One to Level Five, the levels increasing for more evidence, from oral tradition to documentation, to validate the site as a legitimate Underground Railroad site. A Level One site indicates that the story is likely untrue due to reason for doubt while Level Two sites have no written evidence but oral traditions with no reason for doubt. Level Three sites have no direct evidence but are supported by evidence of abolitionist sentiments or African American background. A Level Four label requires more conclusive evidence.
Where does our story fall on this scale? First, we have a significant oral tradition documenting George Johnson’s activities and Ben Johnson’s abolitionist sentiment. After taking over his father’s barbershop, George befriended many white individuals that were in places of political power. He joined the political scene, making enough connections to have his story be carried on in oral tradition. So, this already places us in the Level Two range. But Ben Johnson was an abolitionist – I would argue that adding this detail to the oral tradition that carried this information to us makes this site a Level Three.
Furthermore, we have written evidence in the newspaper The Ithaca Journal. In an issue of this newspaper dated 1904, George’s son told the story of his father to Thomas W. Burns. The article went into detail about how George worked with Ben Johnson in their adjoined buildings to assist runaway slaves. After George received fugitive slaves, he would send his son over to Ben. Ben would often say that he was a Christian and law-abiding citizen, therefore he always handed George’s son some money to buy tickets to send the slaves back to their masters. But in reality, this money was for tickets for the Simeon DeWitt boat to transport the fugitives across Cayuga Lake, where they could continue on the Underground Railroad. This newspaper article makes this site at least a Level Four, maybe even a Level Five.
Since we are quite sure that 112 N. Aurora Street was an Underground Railroad site, let’s imagine being a fugitive slave that just arrived in Ithaca. What could have happened? Let me guide you through this imaginary experience.
You’re absolutely exhausted from your travels and your clothes are tattered. You walk around, overwhelmed and nervous – what if there are slave catchers around? While walking in the background, trying not to stick out, you inspect the busy street. There are vendors in front of shops with well-dressed white folks inquiring about their product.
Realizing that you will never find George and Ben Johnson on your own, you build up the courage to ask for directions. You scout out a black man, also well-dressed. You feel safe asking him. So, you approach and introduce yourself, explaining your situation. You ask for the Johnsons and the man points you to 112 N. Aurora Street and buys you a piece of bread after seeing your condition. Munching on the fresh bread, you wander around the town, looking for the street sign that will point you in the direction of freedom. Once you see it, you follow the road until you see the sign of the barbershop of George Johnson.
You walk into the shop timidly. George greets you and recognizes you as a runaway. He sits with you patiently as you tell him your story. He mentions that he was expecting you since he had been informed by a letter from the previous stationmaster. George sends his son to the law office next door and offers you some clothes. After changing, George sits you in one of the chairs and gives you a classy haircut, changing your appearance.
George tells you the plan: George’s son is buying a boat ticket for you on the Simeon DeWitt in a few days and you will have to board the boat at night. You are given shelter, food, and money during your stay with the Johnsons. There was even a close call with some slave catchers coming to town! You were hidden at the St. James AME Zion Church and brought back to the Johnsons when the coast was clear. On the night of the boat ride, you say goodbye and thank you to the people that helped you. Then, you are snuck out of the building and hidden in a carriage to be brought to the docks. You board the Simeon DeWitt in the dark of the night and are transported across Cayuga Lake onto your next stop.
In this way, we can imagine how George A. Johnson and Ben Johnson helped over 110 slaves in just a ten-year span.
And that’s the end of my little section! I hope you learned a little bit more about how the Underground Railroad functioned both in Ohio and Ithaca. Larger connections and organizations led by the Quakers were an important part of the Underground Railroad, especially in the Ohio area. Working together and creating a network with fellow Quakers, they were able to help an incredible number of people. But just as importantly, those in a small town could also help out. Even if they were not pastors affiliated with the St. James AME Zion Church, Ben and George Johnson contributed greatly to the Underground Railroad here in Ithaca. There is even a bridge named after George Johnson! Working at the grassroots level, individual efforts could make the difference between freedom and a life of bondage for many fugitive slaves.
“Afro-Americans in New York Life and History.” Buffalo, NY, 1979.
Burns, Thomas W. “Initial Ithacans.” The Ithaca Journal, 1904, 14.
Sachse, Gretchen. “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996.” The History Center in Tompkins County, 1996.
Siebert, Wilbur Henry. A Quaker Section of the Underground Railroad in Northern Ohio. Columbus, OH: F.J. Heer printing Co., 1930.
“Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes.” Seneca County, 2020. https://www.co.seneca.ny.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Uncovering-UGRR-in-Finger-Lakes-ADA.pdf.
White, Mary. “Johnson Assisted Many on the Underground Railroad.” The Ithaca Journal, February 10, 2007. http://www.myfamiliesbranchesandleaves.com/george_johnson.htm.
 Wilbur Henry Siebert, A Quaker Section of the Underground Railroad in Northern Ohio (Columbus, OH: F.J. Heer printing Co., 1930), 9-10.
 Ibid., 13-15.
 Gretchen Sachse, “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996,” The History Center in Tompkins County (1996), 5.
 “Afro-Americans in New York Life and History,” Buffalo, NY (1979), 26.
 Mary White, “Johnson Assisted Many on the Underground Railroad,” The Ithaca Journal, February 10, 2007, http://www.myfamiliesbranchesandleaves.com/george_johnson.htm.
 “Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes,” Seneca County, 2020, https://www.co.seneca.ny.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Uncovering-UGRR-in-Finger-Lakes-ADA.pdf.
 “Afro-Americans in New York Life and History.”
 Thomas W. Burns, “Initial Ithacans,” The Ithaca Journal, 1904, 14.
 “Afro-Americans in New York Life and History,” 26-28.
 Mary White, “Johnson Assisted Many on the Underground Railroad.”