Tice Davids: The Origins of the Underground Railroad Name
Posted February 21, 2024
Topics: African American History

By Valerie Boyer, School and Inclusive Community Programs Coordinator

The commonly held notion of the Underground Railroad is that it was a network of people, places and secret routes that spirited southern slaves from captivity to freedom.

We can surmise from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, that enslaved folx were already making their escape from the formal transatlantic slave trade openly practiced in the south. News of the freedom available in Canada spread in the U.S. as a result of the war of 1812, with awareness that by 1818, Canada was refusing to extradite refugees of slavery who reach that point. Most learned upon arrival to bordering territories that Ohio and Michigan were participating free land in certain parts of their states as well. So where does the name the Underground Railroad come from? While there are many legends the answer the question, the most agreed upon is the story of Tice Davids.

In 1831, a Kentucky enslaved man named Tice Davids made a break for the free state of Ohio by swimming across the Ohio River. His master trailed close behind in a boat, and watched Davids wade ashore. When he looked again, Davids was nowhere to be found. The most agreed upon folklore and myth suggest that Davids’s master returned to Kentucky in a rage, exclaiming to his friends that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.” The name stuck, and the legend of the Underground Railroad was born.

It is difficult to say what happened to Tice Davids. We want to believe he lived out his days on free soil while carving out a life for himself and his loved ones. However, the likelihood that this took place in Ohio in the 1830s is slim. Almost immediately after Ohio achieved statehood, the Ohio Black Codes were adopted, placing heavy restrictions on Black residents and laborers.

By 1807, if you were Black living in Ohio, you had to pay a residency fee, register with the county clerk, have a white Ohioan as a sponsor, and whether born free or not, secure and travel with freedom papers—all under penalty of arrest, fines or expulsion from the state. As a Black person in Ohio, you also had to contend with the fact that you could not engage civil or military service, vote, attend publicly funded schools and/or testify in court against a white person.

We don’t know how Tice Davids life pans out in the end, and we certainly know he is not without obstacle as a newly freed refugee of slavery here in Ohio. What we do know, is that his triumphant, almost magical, swim across the Ohio River and “disappearing act” set a precedent for so many of our Black Ohio heroes to come.

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