#039;Free soil#039; from Ironton part of new museum

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Two cupsful of soil from several of Ironton's historic sites is now mixed with "free soil" from around the nation and world.

Several Irontonians participated in the Monday dedication of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

After the five-person group marched slowly in a symbolic candlelight journey from across the Ohio River to the Freedom Center, Patricia Arrington, president of the Lawrence County Historical Society, stepped up before the crowd of thousands and tipped the Ironton soil into a large urn.

Email newsletter signup

"I thought about the soil and the fact that it is possible that Ironton's abolitionists and the runaway slaves seeking freedom that they helped along their way may have actually stepped on this same soil," Arrington said. "It was a wonderful experience, one that I believe will now become part of Ironton's history."

The Underground Railroad Freedom Center honors the more than 100,000 runaway slaves who escaped to freedom through the supportive secret system of abolitionists, freed slaves, sympathizers and safe houses on many routes from the south to freedom in Canada.

Several of the Underground Railroad escape routes ran through Lawrence County, Ironton and many other riverfront towns that were adjacent to states where slavery was practiced, creating a natural but difficult passage to freedom.

Located on the riverfront in Cincinnati, the center offers four floors of displays and resources in three architecturally noted buildings built on the theme of the flowing river, dark passages and enlightened cooperation. The center also includes facilities for genealogy, research and scholarship.

Ironton's contributed soil came from the home of city founder and abolitionist John Campbell, the Lawrence County Historical Society Museum, located in the home where renowned abolitionist the Rev. John Rankin wrote his memoirs and later died, and the library.

Other participants contributed soil from ground zero at the World Trade Center site and the United Nations in New York, the home of abolitionist William Wilberforce in England, the Harriet Tubman home near Syracuse, N.Y., and from Ohio's other Underground Railroad and abolitionist towns such as Ripley, Springboro and Oberlin.

The two large urns of soil collected will be the foundation of the Freedom Park, which will be created at the center by 2007.

The Ironton delegation also included historians Luanne Blagg and Wilma Fox, museum docent Abner Dow Dunfee, Fox's sister Hazel Shaw and Joseph Jenkins, director of the Briggs-Lawrence County Public Library. Jenkins offered to drive the group to Cincinnati for the day when he learned about the opportunity for Ironton to be represented in the dedication.

"The Freedom Center, sitting right on the river, is an awesome structure. It's a lot more than I expected, an important part of our history, and we have all learned something from it," Fox said. "It was an honor to be able to represent Ironton as part of this historic dedication. Our soil is symbolic of the struggle and the freedom."

Jenkins, after a long day, said, "It's been a great day, and the library and I were happy to help make it happen. It's an important milestone for Ironton, to be included in this historic dedication of the Freedom Center. We'll remember this forever."

First Lady Laura Bush, Gov. Robert Taft, Sen. Mike DeWine, and other congressional and state representatives led the list of dignitaries participating in the dedication, along with actors Angela Bassett and husband Courtney Vance. Oprah Winfrey participated in a gala at the center Sunday night.

Mrs. Bush, who also was present at the groundbreaking for the Freedom Center in 2002, called the center "a national treasure" and "a monument for justice, a cornerstone of the American conscience."

"All who come here will be reminded that of the struggle for human rights and the responsibility for all free people to condemn oppression," she said. "While the construction of this center is completed, our cause, the cause of freedom, is not."

Following the dedication ceremony, concert, dance performances, blessings from leaders from numerous religions and a fireworks display, the Freedom Center opened its doors for a free preview for the thousands attending.

While none of the current displays features Lawrence County or Ironton's Underground Railroad history, Dr. Spencer Crew, executive director and CEO, said that attractions could be added.

"We will continually add new stories and information and fold them into the Freedom Center, making changes over time. We will also add individuals' stories to our extensive Web site," he said. "Even today, slavery continues to haunt us. But rather than walking away from it we should learn from it and find allies through it. We hope that all who visit the center will take away the recognition that we still have issues to take care of in our world today."

For information about the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center or to obtain tickets, call 513-333-7500 in Cincinnati or visit the Web site at www.freedomcenter.org.

Connie Crowther, a native of Ironton and a journalism graduate of Ohio University, is a writer and public relations counselor in Coral Gables, Fla.