The Cincinnati 28 Story
In April of 1853, twenty-eight enslaved people, mainly from the Parker and Terrill families in Petersburg, began their journey to freedom under the leadership of Washington Parker, who was also one of the enslaved. Wash Parker could read, which was usually discouraged by slaveholders. However, he was taught to read by his slaveholder so he could preach the gospel at the services for enslaved people. Slaveholders sometimes liked to spread the gospel to the enslaved in this manner, but also used faith and the teachings of the church as propaganda to keep enslaved people from attempting to seek freedom. However, they were naïve in their confidence. The enslaved people had a separate service, which gave them freedom to plan together. Wash Parker reportedly had read a copy of the recently published Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, inspiring a plan for escape, which he shared with his flock.
At some earlier point, John Fairfield, a Virginian by birth, but an avid abolitionist, had became involved in the escape. He was a white Southerner, so above suspicion when he visited the Boone County farms posing as a "poultry dealer," possibly with his own "slave." Fairfield arranged for three small skiffs to be waiting for the group when they got to the river crossing. The large group boarded these very small boats, and began to cross the river, just above Petersburg. While they were crossing the river, one of the boats began to sink. The occupants of the boat (including Fairfield himself) were wet, muddy and conspicuous when they reached the free soil of Ohio. Fairfield relized they wouldn’t get far in this shape, so he hid them in a ravine and sent for help. Elijah Anderson may have assisted with the crossing and helped to contact Deacon John Hatfield on the river in Cincinnati, who would help them along.
John Hatfield was a free African American agent in the city. He was a barber on the river boats, and a deacon at the Zion Baptist Church downtown, also a stop on the UGRR. He and Levi Coffin came up with a plan to stage a mock funeral procession toward integrated Wesleyan Cemetery, with the freedom seekers disguised as mourners. The brilliant plan was a well-coordinated effort between many of the UGRR’s most well-known players.
Levi Coffin, known as the "Superintendent of the Underground Railroad" in Cincinnati, then helped provide dry clothing, food and wagons for the group. He was wealthy, and had a broad network of anti-slavery associates willing to assist. Coffin was a Quaker, and believed in a peaceful approach to freedom for the enslaved. He often disagreed with John Fairfield’s methods, which sometimes included arming the freedom seekers, and did not discourage violence as a tool for escape and self-preservation. However, theirs was a common goal, and they would work together when they crossed paths in the area.
The group was able to make it to College Hill, one of Cincinnati’s abolitionist areas, where they were well-hidden and given more assistance. Though pursued by slave hunters during points in their journey, the Cincinnati 28 made their way safely to Canada and freedom.
John Fairfield continued his Underground Railroad work for a number of years after the escape of the Cincinnati 28. He disappeared from records around the start of the Civil War. Theories surrounding his disappearance range from death during a West Virginia slave insurrection to his relocation to Kansas.