Past ties to Underground Railroad still affect us today

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 31, 2004

It's not a railroad. And it's not underground - unless you consider runaway slaves' basement hiding places and the clandestine nature of the network that carried fleeing slaves across the Ohio River to freedom, step by dangerous step.

The Underground Railroad, honored this past week with the opening of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the river in Cincinnati (, is an important part of the history of Lawrence County. But it's pitiful how little most of us know about this part of our history.

We live on the river, the border between the free and slave states during the 19th

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century, and the great symbol of freedom to the many slaves who stood on its southern banks and looked longingly toward the north. Some risked their lives to escape across the river to the free state of Ohio and points north. Others, fearful of drowning or getting caught, stayed put and died in slavery.

Sitting with local historians Luanne Blagg and Wilma Fox last week, I was engrossed in their stories of both the freedom seekers and the abolitionists in our own community. In Lawrence County alone, there were thousands of Underground Railroad success stories as the terrified slaves escaped through our county to points farther north, away from the bounty hunters and mean dogs that were hot on their trail.

Freed slaves - including those who had found work at the iron ore furnaces in our area - were an important part of the Underground Railroad, serving as "conductors" to help others along their way to freedom.

There were also many tales of woe here when the strong, motivated bounty hunters found runaway slaves and returned them south. Abolitionists after 1850 stood to lose everything or go to jail, as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it illegal to assist the runaway slaves. They were regarded as the property of someone else, and if you helped them you were stealing property.

These were dark, vile days in the history of our nation, but the stories of the brave and committed abolitionists who populated Ironton then give us reason now to hold up our heads with pride.

There are many stories that relate to city founder John Campbell, a staunch abolitionist who hid the runaways in his barn behind the house on North Fifth Street. He lent horses and buggies with hiding places under the hay to the Underground Railroad to move farther out in the county. Rumor has it that many of Ironton's circa 1850 mansions have secret rooms or hiding places to help the Underground Railroad.

County names like Aid, Getaway, Poke Patch and Blackfork hark back to the days of the Underground Railroad. Lawrence County was the start of many of the Underground Railroad trails that led the fleeing slaves to a life of freedom farther into the state and on into Canada.

Most people also don't know that the renowned abolitionist John Rankin, who helped many escape through Ripley, Ohio, farther downriver, lived, wrote and died in the house where the Lawrence County Historical Museum is now located. Even the folks at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center were delighted with that little Ironton factoid.

I got cold chills when I listened to the words of the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd," after learning that it was full of directions and instructions to escaping slaves. Through this old ballad, they learned they should look to the Big Dipper, pointing to the North Star, and follow the "drinking gourd" north.

Having grown up in the 1950s and 1960s in Ironton in an integrated community, I believe that our strong abolitionist background and history have had a positive impact on the Ironton of yesterday and today. From the first grade, we all went to fully integrated schools. That is not true of most of the rest of the nation, both on the northern and southern sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

I have friends who grew up in communities where African-Americans were not only segregated but abused and shunned. Their upbringing was very different from ours.

By contrast, I grew up side by side with black friends. We had all our classes together, cut up during homeroom and complained about all the homework. We had fun, were friends.

The gorgeous Betty Jean Cameron was our homecoming queen.

All my life, our family went to Dr. French, an African-American. He was a fine doctor, a wonderful man, a healer. He was never different. He was a friend. He was our doctor.

Our parents have always had black friends. And they treasure those friendships. These supportive relationships go generations back into our history.

When I went away to college at Ohio University in the 1960s, I encountered true racism for the first time. A girl from Cleveland called me "the skinny little honky in the shower." I had to ask someone what she meant. The answer shocked and embarrassed me. I had grown up with a very different perspective.

Today, after learning more about the Underground Railroad and Ironton's brave abolitionists and sympathizers, I firmly believe that our ancestors, both black and white, who risked their own lives and worldly goods by being part of the Underground Railroad, played an important role in shaping our point of view into the 21st century.

And I'm mighty proud of us.

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