Think about the word “Africa.” Now what do you visualize? The Red Sea? Games of Cricket? Drums beating to the sounds of African sambas? Could you ever imagine the word “Africa” holding a more personal, local definition? In Delaware, Ohio, that’s exactly what the word has.
Africa was the name of a community of runaway slaves who lived in log homes, were employed by anti-slavery farmers, and settled in the southern Delaware County area. In 1824, a man named Samuel Patterson began to hide runaway slaves in his home, which was located in what is now north of Westerville. These slaves were mocked by pro-slavery neighborhoods, who referred to their community as “Africa,” and so East Orange was renamed. Country gentlefolk had erected small cabins there as temporary housing while building permanent homes on their estates. After a time, the woodlands north of Westerville harbored a cluster of these abandoned cabins, as folks began to move into their newly completed houses. To this time, the village has disappeared, but several of Patterson’s homes still stand in this vicinity. Africa is said to be the only town named after the Underground Railroad.
What’s even more astounding is the fact that Ohio had an extensive network of trails used by anti-slavery activists, free Blacks, and churches to help fugitive slaves flee from the South to Canada. Ohio had one of the most active Underground Railroad operations in the nation; some sources estimate that 40,000 slaves escaped to freedom through Ohio. The Ohio Department of Transportation designated portions of U.S. Route 23 and State Route 4 – one of the most frequently used corridors on the Underground Railroad – as a commemorative highway to be known as River-To-Lake Freedom Trail. This trail follows the present day alignment of 23 from the Ohio River at Portsmouth, north through central Ohio.
An Ohio Department of Natural Resources site has a page called Ohio’s Underground Railroad to Freedom which talks about slave coming across the Ohio River from the south. The site says: One of the most famous Underground Railroad routes in central Ohio was Africa Road. This was the setting of one of the most extraordinary chapters in Underground Railroad history.
Why do you think central Ohio was such a good pit-stop for these runaway slaves? And what else do you know about secret slave routes in the Delaware area?