GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The Underground Railroad was a network of freedom seekers helping slaves get to the north. The secret network stretched across the country, making its way through Wisconsin.
“They came up in two ways. They came up on the coast, through Racine and Milwaukee. Some of them even made their way farther north into the Green Bay-Door County area,” says Clayborn Benson, Founder of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society.
Reverend Jeremiah Porter and his wife Eliza Chapel Porter’s home in Green Bay was the last stop on the Wisconsin stretch of the Underground Railroad before slaves crossed Lake Michigan into Canada. Their church, First Presbyterian, which is now Union Congregational Church, was on the route as well.
“They ended up hiding in the church belfry because they couldn’t be in the church when there were other members of the congregation around. You know these are always big secrets when you’re trying to get people from one place to another,” says Mary Jane Herber, historian, and genealogist of the Brown County Library.
Researchers say Green Bay was not as easy a route to Canada as some of the other parts of the Midwest were. Despite that, Wisconsin’s role in the Underground Railroad holds more significance than you might think. Joshua Glover’s rescue in 1854 catapulted America’s heartland into the national spotlight.
“Wisconsin is the only state in the union to defy the fugitive slave law. The only state in the union to break the door down and take an enslaved person to Canada. All the other states do it, but they sneak and do it. They do it at nighttime, but Wisconsin does it in the broad daylight and they do it despite what the law enforcement is saying,” says Benson.
Experts say there were other people in Wisconsin who were involved with the Underground Railroad, but since it was illegal, there isn’t much documentation of it. The Milton House, now a museum, is one of the few places in the Badger State that can prove they were a station on the Underground Railroad and be toured.
“We have a scrap of paper from the Goodrich family papers that talk about a freedom seeker coming here and being sheltered as part of the Underground Railroad,” says Keighton Klos, Executive Director of the Milton House.
Although there is still much we don’t know about the Underground Railroad, the mark Wisconsin left on the entire country cannot be erased.