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Women and the Underground Railroad

African American womanTucked into the dark corners of attics and closets around our nation are thousands of old photographs whose stories are lost to time. Some of these images are now in museums, where researchers puzzle over their meaning. Who are the people pictured? What role did they play in history? Why was the photo saved for posterity?

This photo of an African American woman (pictured right, an unidentified woman) is one such example. Passed down through generations of a Kansas family, it eventually made it to the collections of the Kansas Historical Society. Although the donors had no idea who the woman might be, museum curators have been able to solve part of the mystery by studying both the image itself and the donors' family history.

Examining the photograph closely provided some clues to its story. The woman's dress and hairstyle date from the early 1860s, around the time the Civil War began. Slavery was still legal in the United States, however, her wedding ring tells us she's a free woman (enslaved people couldn't legally marry). These are significant clues that establish the rarity and importance of the image.

Next, researching the donors' ancestors helped uncover why a white family might have saved a century-old photograph of an unidentified black woman. The donors of this image were descendants of Luther Platt and his brothers—ardent abolitionists who came to Kansas to fight for the antislavery cause.

When Kansas Territory was created in 1854, it quickly became the center of the nation's attention as people battled over whether the state would allow slavery within its borders. Some people came here to fight for a cause, but most were ordinary folks seeking new opportunities. Those who tried to remain neutral often had to choose sides, and individuals who stuck to their beliefs could become targets of violence in "Bleeding Kansas."

The Platts came to Kansas both for cheap land and the antislavery cause. As abolitionists, they supported the complete abolition (or abolishment) of slavery. Several Platt brothers came here from Illinois, settling in Wabaunsee County in 1856. There they actively aided slaves escaping to Canada or northern "free" states. The woman in this photograph could have been someone they helped to freedom. It wasn't uncommon for formerly enslaved people to stay in touch with their defenders, and the woman may have sent her photo to the family who helped her escape.

Aiding fugitive slaves was a federal crime under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, punishable by six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. Still, thousands were assisted by whites and free blacks through the Underground Railroad, a secret system of people who helped formerly enslaved people escape.

Because these activities were so secretive, only a few Kansas Underground Railroad stories have survived. One is the remarkable tale of Ann Clarke, who passed through Topeka on her way to freedom.

Ann was about 40 years old when she escaped from her Lecompton owner (George Clarke, a notorious proslavery man) and hid on a farm near Topeka. There she was discovered by slavery sympathizers and taken captive. While they waited for her owner to collect her, Ann managed to get away and hide in a nearby ravine.

Coming out of hiding at daybreak, Ann saw a man walking along a nearby road. She struck up a conversation, learned he was a doctor, and decided to take a chance and ask for his help. After a couple of days in hiding at this man's house, she was sent on to Topeka to the residence of Caroline Scales.

There, Ann was aided by John Armstrong, an abolitionist engaged to Scales' daughter. Many years later, Armstrong related Ann's story:

Mr. Scales, when he built the house, placed a sugar hogshead—an immense barrel which we had shipped things from the east in-down in the cellar. When Ann came, we put some straw, clothes and blankets into the hogshead, and had her stay in it. Mrs. S. kept boarders, and during the day, while they were out, Ann used to come up in the kitchen and do a great deal of house work.

During one of these breaks from isolation in the cellar, Ann was discovered by one of the boarders, a Captain Henry who was a proslavery man. Armstrong reported on the extraordinary exchange between Mrs. Scales and Henry: "Mrs. Scales said 'You can keep a secret.' He did, and never gave us away."

It took Ann's helpers several weeks to raise the money to finance her trip to freedom, and another three weeks to get her safely to Chicago. Armstrong recorded that Ann wrote him several times in the years to follow.

Entry: Women and the Underground Railroad

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2004

Date Modified: April 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.