The Path To Freedom

History: In small towns along the Ohio River, the courageous deeds of Underground Railroad conductors have not been forgotten.

Cover Story

January 28, 2001|By Julia M. Klein | By Julia M. Klein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The real history of these men and this period will never be told, for the principal actors have passed away, leaving here and there stray episodes...

-- from the autobiography of John P. Parker, a slave who bought his freedom and became an Underground Railroad conductor

John Parker was a prescient man: He anticipated his own anonymity.

Judging by his autobiography, "His Prom-ised Land," he was also something of a character: a successful businessman and inventor who received numerous pat-ents, a daredevil who led even reluctant slaves across the Ohio River to freedom. Still, like many African-Americans who were part of the Underground Railroad, he was largely forgotten -- until recently.

Now, the John P. Parker Historical Society is using the proceeds from Parker's autobiography to restore his modest brick home on Front Street in Ripley, Ohio. Located on the banks of the Ohio River, this tobacco town an hour southeast of Cincinnati was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Front Street itself became a sort of abolitionists' row, filled with the homes of "conductors" who provided safe passage for slaves fleeing to Canada.

Once cloaked in mystery and silence, the Underground Railroad is now enjoying a historical renaissance. One harbinger of this revival is the construction of the $100 million National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, scheduled to open in 2004 on Cincinnati's refurbished riverfront. Another is a nationwide effort, supported by the National Park Service, to identify and preserve "railroad" sites.

The Freedom Center, which aims to attract 450,000 annual visitors, will tell the tale of the Underground Railroad as a saga of interracial cooperation and courage, set against the backdrop of slavery.

Its "story theater" will focus on the life of John Parker. Linking the metaphorical railroad to other freedom movements, the center will try to inspire visitors to become present-day "conductors," working for freedom in their own communities.

The museum will also point visitors to the many Underground Railroad sites nearby -- one of the reasons Cincinnati gained federal support for the museum.

The term "Underground Railroad" was an antebellum expression denoting the network of routes, stops and conductors that helped thousands of slaves escape to the north -- and sometimes south or west -- to freedom.

The border between Ohio and Kentucky, like the one that divided Maryland and Pennsylvania, was a contested place, with the river marking the boundary where slaveholding stopped and freedom began. Along its banks, abolitionists, bounty hunters and escaping slaves played an often elaborate game of hide-and-seek whose stakes could be life or death.

The idea of seeing traces of the Underground Railroad intrigued me. On my own, those traces would have been hard to find, because many of the sites have disappeared, leaving only stories behind. But I had the help of willing guides, whose enthusiasm brought the clandestine, often elusive world of the Underground Railroad to life.

Abolitionist meeting house

From my base at Cincinnati's Omni Netherland Hotel, I begin with a trip to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in the Walnut Hills section of the city. The house, where the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" lived for four years, is an imposing sight: a two-story building of white wood frame with a Greek Revival portico.

Lyman Beecher, Harriet's father, lived there when he was president of Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet left in 1836 to marry Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor of biblical theology. According to curator Emma Cox, the house may have been a station on the Underground Railroad.

"People want to believe that," she says. "They say there were underground tunnels, but they're not there now."

The house most likely was a meeting place for abolitionists. Their discussions may have influenced Stowe, even though she didn't pen her most famous novel -- an attack on the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which extended the property rights of slaveholders into free states -- until 1852.

The Stowe House isn't a conventional museum. The Citizens Committee on Youth operates it as a cultural and educational center that promotes black history, and only the ground floor is accessible to tourists. A single room holds artifacts and images associated with Stowe and other abolitionists, including a manuscript page from "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Another room has temporary exhibitions. There is a small gift shop and a reading room filled with books relating to African-American history and art.

My next stop is the Cincinnati Art Museum, for a look at Charles Webber's oil painting, "The Underground Railroad." This sentimental 1893 work embodies the conventional view of the railroad: It shows Levi Coffin, a Quaker, and his family assisting a group of fleeing slaves traveling under cover of night. A candle evokes the metaphorical light cast by the Underground Railroad.

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