Nation & World

Women of the Underground Railroad featured in Kentucky exhibit

With a young slave boy hidden beneath the seat of her carriage and his slave parents, coated in flour, riding above with her, Delia Ann Webster helped the family escape slavery in Lexington by crossing the Ohio River at Maysville.

Webster is one of a host of women, black and white, who played important but sometimes forgotten roles in the Underground Railroad, protecting Southern slaves and leading many to the promise of freedom up north.

Some of their stories, including Webster's, are depicted in University of Kentucky professor emeritus Doris Wilkinson's exhibit, Warriors in the Shadows: Women of the Underground Railroad, at the W.T. Young Library through March.

"This is so important to me because I admired those women with their incredible fighting spirit," Wilkinson said. "This is an area that you don't hear much about. We know very little about the role of women in the flight for freedom."

The most famous female "conductor" along the secretive network of safe houses leading from slavery to freedom was Harriet Tubman. Despite a severe head wound — suffered at the hands of an overseer — that caused seizures, severe headaches and narcoleptic episodes, she led hundreds of slaves north, returning often for family and strangers alike.

Less known, however, are women like Webster, who after the 1844 trip to Maysville was arrested in Lexington, and was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. She was released after less than two months because the warden took a liking to her.

In 1852, she bought a farm in Trimble County, across the Ohio River from Madison, Ind.

Soon, slaves in the area began to disappear, and Webster became the likely suspect. Mobs confronted her on more than one occasion, and she was arrested and jailed again.

In 1854, she was indicted on an additional charge stemming from the 1844 Lexington escape. A court in Indiana, where she had fled, refused to send her back to Kentucky to stand trial. She apparently moved to Iowa after the Civil War and died there in 1902.

Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Quaker minister so strongly opposed to slavery that she boycotted any products produced with slave labor in the 1830s, also is featured in the exhibit.

She was often threatened with physical violence because of her beliefs, which extended to women's rights and religious reformation.

She founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and she led a delegation of women to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England, where women were not allowed to participate because of their gender. When she returned to this country, she dedicated her life to women's rights and helped found Swarthmore College in 1864.

And then there is Ellen Craft, the enslaved daughter of a biracial slave and their white master. Craft resembled her white half-siblings so much that she was often mistaken for them, and that didn't sit well with the mistress of the house.

Craft was given to the mistress' daughter at age 11 as a wedding gift. A few years later, she met and married William Craft, another slave.

In 1848, they devised a plan of escape that required Ellen to dress as a white man with an injured arm that did not allow him to write and with bandages around his jaw that would not allow him to speak. Her husband was the man's personal servant.

It worked. They arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas day after traveling by train and boat.

Both were soon featured in public lectures by abolitionists seeking to build opposition to slavery.

After the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, however, the couple fled to England, where they reared five children and published their account of the escape.

In 1868, they returned to the United States with three of their children and started an agricultural school in Georgia for former slaves.

Wilkinson began working on the exhibit when she was on the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission years ago. It has been displayed at Transylvania University's Morlan Gallery and at Georgetown College. In 2006, a scaled-down version was on exhibit at the Young library.

Wilkinson selected the term "warrior" for those involved in the Underground Railroad because they had found a different way to fight, and she added the word "shadows" because much of their work was in secret.

"They had to hide, too," she said, "to protect their families. I see them as fighters hiding along with the slaves."

Wilkinson, who has received many awards, founded and directed African American Studies and Research Program at UK, and the Black Women's Conference, and she created the African American Heritage Trail in Lexington.

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