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Ohio Town Proud to Offer Glimpse into Slavery-Era's Underground Railroad - 2004-08-25

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened this month on the banks of the Ohio River, is filled with exhibits about the struggle against slavery in this country. But 80 kilometers upriver, the town of Ripley, Ohio is a living legacy of the Underground Railroad. Throughout the first half of the 1800s, Ripley was a hotbed of Abolitionist activity, and home to two towering figures in the anti-slavery movement: John Rankin and John Parker - a white Abolitionist and a black one.

120 steps - some stone, some wood - are set into the side of Rankin Hill. When you reach the top, if the climb hasn't taken your breath away, the view will.

"You can see five bends of the Ohio River from here, and you can see what John Rankin saw, which is the shore, northern shore of Kentucky, the shores of slavery," said Ms. Hagedorn.

Ann Hagedorn pauses at John Rankin's front stoop. The Presbyterian minister is one of the Abolitionists profiled in her book, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. Ms. Hagedorn says he installed these hillside steps to guide escaping slaves to his door, high above downtown Ripley, and every night, he hung a lantern from his house, which is visible for miles from the opposite shore. His activities made him well known among slaves and slave owners across the river.

"John Rankin had worked in northern Kentucky to help to educate slaves, and had become very notorious for that," she said. "And actually, it became so life-threatening he had to leave Kentucky."

The minister, who was born and raised in Tennessee, had planned to come to Ripley all along, because of the town's reputation for work with the Underground Railroad - a biracial network of people who helped slaves escape to freedom.

John Parker, Ripley's leading black abolitionist, was also one of its leading businessmen. He owned and operated a foundry, and lived in an imposing house by the river. Standing outside that house, the Freedom Center's Carl Westmoreland says John Parker knew about slavery first hand as a child, he was sold and marched in chains to the Deep South, where his owner trained him as a metalworker. He eventually bought his freedom and made his way north.

"This man, born in slavery, walked at the age of seven from Norfolk, Virginia down to Mobile, Alabama, became literate, became a self-made, wealthy man, became an inventor, a manufacturer, and became a mentor to young Africans who were interested in elevating themselves," said Mr. Westmoreland.

He also became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, rowing across the Ohio after dark.

"He was financially successful, but he risked it all on a regular basis bringing people across to the other side," Mr. Westmoreland said.

The Ohio was the border between the North and the South, and Ripley was a natural goal for escaping slaves. The town sits at one of the river's narrowest bends, and sandbars beneath the water made the crossing easier. But not easy. Ripley native Miriam Zackman, 80, grew up hearing harrowing stories of river crossings, including one about a woman who turned up one winter night with a baby in her arms.

"When she was to be sold, and her child was to be sold, separated from her, she decided to leave," recalled Ms. Zackman. "She came across, and it was icy - freezing - came across the river, probably going from either ice floe to ice floe or before the river was frozen, but not solidly, and she got across. And when her master and his people came the next morning to follow her, the ice had broken up. And she got to the Rankin house, and John Rankin took her on to the next place."

If that incident sounds familiar, it's no coincidence. John Rankin shared the woman's story with abolitionist friends, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, who used her as the model for Eliza in her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Some in Ripley have dramatic escapes in their own family history.

"My name Eugene W. Settles," started Eugene Settles, who is 102 years old. His grandfather was enslaved in Maysville, Kentucky. He says that when his grandfather found out he was going to be sold, he rounded up his brother-in-law, his wife, and his infant daughter, and headed for Ohio.

"They come to a high wall, before they got to the river, and the little girl started crying, the baby started crying. And my grandfather got over the big, high wall, and his brother-in-law pitched the baby over the wall my grandfather caught her. Back in those days, they had dogs to trail people. And they could still hear the dogs comin', after they got into the river," he said.

To enslaved African Americans, "the River" - the Ohio - took on the significance of the Biblical River Jordan, according to Carl Westmoreland of the Freedom Center.

"Any boundary between enslavement and freedom that was separated by water, the other side of the river was Canaan land," he said. "So Ohio was seen erroneously as the Promised Land. What Ohio offered was the promise of an opportunity to be less enslaved, and if one were wise, they would keep moving."

Since Canada was the only place where escapees would truly be free, the Underground Railroad moved them north as quickly as possible. Often, "conductors" took "passengers" in person to the next secure place along the route; other times, they gave them coded notes pointing the way.

Follow the Drinking Gourd, a song that slaves taught each other, includes instructions about crossing the Ohio River.

The Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery was finally implemented throughout the United States in 1865. Some historians suggest that by then, as many as 100,000 slaves may have escaped to freedom some on their own, many with help from the Underground Railroad. That's a quite a legacy, says author Ann Hagedorn.

"Once you come into this town, you look at the river, you walk up this hill and you realize how difficult it is, how exhausted they must have been once they got to this hill, then you have a great appreciation for the powerful incentive of freedom, and the stamina and the energy and the spiritual strength of the slaves who were escaping," she said.

The homes of both John Rankin and John Parker are open to the public, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center includes a short film about the town they called home.