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Civil disobedience against slavery in Iowa
David V. Wendell
Feb. 13, 2023 6:00 am
Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has been observed every third Monday of January since 1986 and was Jan. 16 this year. It is a day when we acknowledge the leading civil rights leader of the 20th century who risked his life eyeing the prize of equality for all.
The movement he led was largely in the South with civil disobedience in cities such as Montgomery, AL, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. But what about Salem, Iowa, Grinnell and Denmark, Iowa? These were some of the leading communities conducting acts of civil disobedience during the mid nineteenth century.
Slavery was dividing the nation in the 1840s after Iowa became a state and the residents of California petitioned to join the Union. Declaring that they would be a free state prohibiting slavery, southern states realized this would tilt the balance of Congress in favor of the North, and raised objections, threatening to secede or band together and form their own nation.
To prevent this, Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who would later defeat Abraham Lincoln as his opponent for re-election, proposed a solution to the vexing problem. He drafted legislation that would allow California to join as a free state, but to supplicate the South, also enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, which stated that federal and state law enforcement of every state, free or proslavery, must assist in locating and sending escaped slaves back to their masters.
To reinforce that, it furthermore added that any civilians who aided and abetted escaped slaves were subject to fines and jail time, or, if caught by slave bounty hunters, could even face death without penalty for the bounty hunter. Congress passed the bill in September 1850 and the New Fugitive Slave Act became federal law.
Seeing this as an unjust violation of civil and human rights, many Iowans joined in acts of civil disobedience, violating the Fugitive Slave Act, and putting their lives, and livelihoods, on the line.
Escaped slaves would make their way north by traveling mostly at night and hiding in attics, basements, or secret crawlspaces within abolitionists’ homes. The network of paths and refuges spread from the South and through border territories and states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa.
The escaped slaves would enter the state southwest of Tabor, near the Nebraska Territory border, and make their way through Lewis, Des Moines, Grinnell, and finally at Clinton, where they could cross into Illinois. Another popular route lay to the east, with escapees crossing the border into Iowa at towns such as Farmington or Croton.
Abolitionists would greet the “contraband” as they arrived at their homes and provide food and shelter until they were ready to proceed to the next link on what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.
To prevent being charged with giving asylum to a criminal, the abolitionists would dig a cellar space accessible by secret trap doors beneath the house, or, in some cases, install fake walls with a room behind it to house their secret guests.
When bounty hunters arrived, the homeowner or family would simply sit at the kitchen table or affront a fire in the fireplace or stove, and act as though they knew nothing about the missing men or women. So well disguised were the trap doors and fake walls that few escaped slaves were found. During the reign of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, less than 500 escapees who made it to the North were ever returned.
Once bounty hunters had parted, the abolitionist hosts would frequently disguise the escaped slave as a woman in mourning (dressed in black) or hide them beneath a stack of grain and carry them by buggy to the next link where they would be fed and protected until finally crossing the Mississippi River.
The exact number of former slaves who made their way to freedom, or at the very least, acceptance, in Canada in not known, but it is estimated that approximately 100,000 were successful in their odyssey along the Underground.
The end of the American Civil War and the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, rendered this network no longer necessary, but remnants remain. The Todd House stands in Tabor, where the Rev. John Todd hid escapees as their first welcome to Iowa, the Jordan House is a landmark in West Des Moines where James C. Jordan served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and the Henderson Lewelling House of Salem and parsonage of Rev. Asa Turner along with parishioner Theron Trowbridge, of Denmark, all stand today as reminders of those who took a stand 160 years ago, just as Dr. King did sixty years ago, for equality among all peoples everywhere.
These mansions or modest dwellings can be visited as museums or private homes in each community. Every one of them were vital stations on the Underground Railroad which enabled so many to see the prize. Remember them as we commemorate Black History Month.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.
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