The Ottumwa Courier

October 24, 2012

A quest for freedom: Curious minds get insight into Underground Railroad in Iowa

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Those who look for any records about runaway slaves wish more information was available.

Michelle Poe, the director of education at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, presented “Don’t Follow the Drinking Gourd” Tuesday at Ottumwa Public Library.

Poe explained the process freedom-seeking slaves took to get to freedom while going through Iowa. Poe admitted it could be tough to get the information.

“The Underground Railroad was secretive. They didn’t keep records,” she said. “There’s so much we don’t know because it wasn’t written down.”

Many things are known, but the information came through local gossip.

People who helped the runaway slaves faced “dire consequences” if they helped a runaway slave escape. If caught helping a runaway, local authorities could “cut off your leg and beat you with it,” Poe said.

About 75 percent of those on the run were Africans taken from the west coast of Africa, also called the Slave Coast because so many people were taken.

Other Africans ended up in Latin America or South America.

“There was a two-year life expectancy for this sub-par group,” Poe said. “They were fed little, but they had to keep working and often were worked to death.”

Brutal slavery was also used in the United States, where a person was seen as an investment.

“Years ago humans were traded, bought and sold,” Poe said.

Running away via the Underground Railroad was difficult. Slaves had to pay for their escape.

Iowa opposed slavery and Missouri supported it, Poe added.

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