Growing up in the Northern United States in the early 1800s, Stowe had little direct contact with black people. But she heard stories about the way black people were treated in the Southern part of the country under the institution of slavery. Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country, where it became a dominant part of the region's economy and culture.
One of the stories Stowe heard as a girl helped convince her that slavery was wrong. A few years before Stowe was born, her aunt married a wealthy planter (plantation owner) from the West Indies, a chain of islands in the Caribbean, off the southern coast of North America. She returned to his island plantation with him, only to discover that he had fathered more than a dozen children with his slaves there. He considered the black women his property and saw nothing wrong with breeding new servants the way he might breed livestock. Stowe's aunt was outraged at her hus band's attitude and behavior. Overcome with shame, she moved back to Connecticut and died. Whenever Stowe's father told this story, he always concluded by saying that slavery was a sin that would be punished by God.
Stowe received her first real contact with slavery in 1832. At this time, her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, so her father could teach at Lane Theological Seminary. Cincinnati was a booming frontier town just across the Ohio River from Kentucky—a state that allowed slavery. As a result, many fugitive slaves passed through Cincinnati on their way to freedom in the North or in Canada. In fact, Cincinnati was a major stop on the Underground Railroad—a secret network of abolitionists (people who fought to end slavery) who helped escaped slaves. The Underground Railroad system consisted of a chain of homes and barns known as "safe houses" or "depots." The people who helped the runaway slaves go from one safe house to the next were known as "conductors."
Since Cincinnati bordered the South, slavery was a subject of great debate there. Some of the students at Lane Theological Seminary formed an antislavery society, and Stowe was exposed to their arguments on the issue. She often saw advertisements offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves. She spoke with one of her father's colleagues who allowed fugitive slaves to stay in his home. She also visited Kentucky and witnessed plantation life firsthand. But throughout this time, Stowe kept her growing hatred of slavery to herself. She worked as a teacher, joined a literary society, and began publishing articles in magazines. She also wrote her first book, a geography textbook to be used in schools.
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