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Revisiting the Underground Railroad

Thursday, February 22, 2001 at 7:21 AM

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In the years before the Civil War, runaway slaves seeking freedom were often assisted on their journey be a secret network known as the Underground Railroad. While people in many states participated in this network, nowhere is the history of that effort better documented than right here in Ohio. Today we'll revisit one of Ohio's links to the Underground Railroad in a story about abolitionist John Brown and his ties to the community of Hudson. We'll also hear from our neighbors across the lake at the end of the Underground Railroad, where the Canadian experience has been very different from our own. 90.3's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer- The small town of Hudson, Ohio boasts an astonishing number of documented sites once used by conductors on the Underground Railroad. But Hudson’s most famous son was also one of the country’s most infamous Abolitionists - John Brown, who led the disastrous raid on Harper’s Ferry just before the Civil War. This story first aired in June of last year.

Hudson Commemorates Anti-slavery Activists:
Local community has strong ties to underground railroad

In the years before the Civil War, runaway slaves seeking freedom in Canada were often assisted on their journey by a secret network known as the Underground Railroad. While people in many states participated in this network, nowhere is the history of that effort better known - or documented - than in Ohio. 90.3’s Karen Schaefer has this report.

Karen Schaefer- On January 5, 1826 David Hudson, Jr. - the son of Hudson’s founder - wrote in his diary: ŒTwo men came this evening in a sleigh, bringing a Negro woman, a runaway slave, and her two children.’ That event is the earliest documented involvement of Hudson citizens in the Underground Railroad. But Hudson’s most famous native son was also one of the nation’s most controversial Abolitionists - John Brown, who led the abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

James Caccamo- And this is also the place where, after the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, John Brown gave that oath to fight slavery - he did it at the church that once stood here.

KS- On Memorial Day Weekend, residents of Hudson gathered to commemorate the efforts of these and other anti-slavery activists with the dedication of an historical marker on the town square. James Caccamo is the Hudson Public Library archivist and the town’s leading authority on the Underground Railroad.

JC- From what we understand, people just brought the runaway slaves into their homes. We know John Brown did that...because his son remembers getting shoved over in bed one night and had a slave shoved into bed with him...Also, his brother’s house is a little bit down the road and that’s where the Harper’s Ferry guns were stored.

KS- In all, Hudson boasts 21 documented sites connected to the Underground Railroad. These include Western Reserve College - later Case Western Reserve University - and the Free Congregational Church started by John Brown’s father, Owen, when church leaders refused to allow runaway slaves to share the Brown family pew. But not everyone here joined the Abolitionist cause.

JC- We’re standing in front of the house of the guy who didn’t participate. This is Judge Van R. Humphrey, who was a Summit County common pleas judge and was a Copperhead. And he supported the South throughout the Civil War - and the ironic thing is, his house is right next to the Brown-Strong House.

KS- Assistant archivist Gwen Mayer believes Hudson’s conflict over the issue of slavery was typical of the era.

Gwen Mayer- I think it was something that people had such deep feelings about. They were either very for or very against, I don’t think there were too many people that were in the middle of the road on this issue...And I feel all the more honored that this community celebrates its history, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.

KS- Even within the Brown family itself, there were divisions that have lingered to the present day. Margaret Clark Morgan is the great, great granddaughter of Owen Brown. While she’s pleased her family’s accomplishments are being honored she recalls the controversy at Brown family reunions.

Margaret Clark Morgan- Some of us don’t admire John Brown as much… My father was one who didn’t admire him, because he had this large family and he was constantly moving and he had a lot of debts.

KS- Documenting this complex and often conflicting history has been the job of Caccamo and others involved with the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, a grassroots organization that preserves Ohio’s Underground Railroad sites. Cathy Nelson is the association’s president.

Cathy Nelson- Our Ohio Underground Railroad Association, under the Friends of Freedom Society, really has been designated as a model in the country for our Underground Railroad preservation initiative, our education, our markers, our research.

KS- This year the Association - with a grant from the Ohio Arts Council - will place one hundred historical marker flags at some of the more than six hundred sites documented around the state so far. Ohio’s extraordinary efforts to preserve this heritage have also been recognized by the White House. Cathy Nelson was recently named executive director of the National Underground Railroad Millennium Trail, an initiative of the National Park Service that will join other famous routes - like the Appalachian Trail - in depicting the nation’s past.

CN- We have a lot to learn from those people one hundred and fifty years ago...Look at the audience today. Almost standing room only to hear me speak. And the people were, the majority were, you know, mostly white...It is our job now to pass this story on.

KS- But the story is still unfolding. New sites in Ohio are being discovered all the time and in states like New York, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois - even Kentucky and Virginia - people are now organizing their own heritage trails. This September, the National Underground Railroad Millennium Trail will itself be dedicated at the town of Gallipolis on the banks of the Ohio River, where for the last one hundred thirty-five years, residents have celebrated the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In Hudson, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

While some Ohioans have been celebrating emancipation for over a hundred years, in Canada that same celebration has been going on even longer. In the 1800’s, tens of thousands of fugitive slaves followed the North Star to freedom across the border. Canada abolished slavery in the late 1700’s. In the years before the Civil War, anti-slavery sympathizers at the end of the Underground Railroad helped freedom seekers to establish new lives. The first of two reports on these “Settlements of the North Star,” these stories were first broadcast after Labor Day, 1999:

Settlements of the North Star, Part One

In the years before the Civil War, tens of thousands of fugitive African-Americans followed the North Star to freedom in Canada. Many were helped along the way by a network of anti-slavery sympathizers known collectively as the Underground Railroad. After Emancipation, former slaves in the U.S. could finally begin their long journey out of bondage. But what happened to those others who fled to Canada? From North Buxton, Ontario, 90.3’s Karen Schaefer brings us the first of two reports on “Settlements of the North Star,” stories of the Underground Railroad in Canada.

Karen Schaefer- In 1849, a Scottish Presbyterian minister named Reverend William King arrived in Raleigh Township near Chatham, Ontario with fifteen former slaves. His intention was to build a community where Blacks escaping slavery in the United States could learn to become self-sufficient and make a safe home for their families.

Takesha Brown- Basically what Buxton is was the last stop on the Underground Railroad for a lot of slaves, so this was basically freedom to them.

KS- With the support of the Canadian government, they built the Elgin Settlement, now known as North Buxton. It was a thriving agricultural community that was to become a haven for more than 2,000 Black fugitives and former slaves from the U.S.

Larry Reynolds (re-enacter, 102nd U.S. Colored Troops, Detroit, Michigan)- I am Dr. Martin Delaney. I’m of African descent, born in Virginia, America. Well, if you think back and remember the Fugitive Slave Law. Here I was, a free man by birth with a wife and children, and every moment, every night, I worried about some slave catcher coming to take my family into slavery. What defense did I have? I tired of this fear and anxiety and so I looked north to Buxton…

KS- The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 - which made it illegal to help an escaping slave, even in Œfree’ states like Ohio - sent a flood of new refugees across the border into Canada. Sharon Sexton, President of the International Underground Railroad Monument Collaborative, says Detroit was the single busiest crossing point between Canada and the U.S. One Detroit man, a black Underground conductor named George de Baptists, bought a steamboat to ferry fugitives across Lake Erie.

Sharon Sexton- And they disguised what they did by saying they were taking various things up and down Lake Erie. But what they were actually doing was taking freedom seekers from Sandusky, which had at one time been a black settlement, up the Erie to Amherstburg.

KS- In fact, there were many routes that led across Lake Erie. Slaves and free blacks escaping through Ohio could take ship in Cleveland for Buffalo and Niagra or at Sandusky or Toledo for Detroit, crossing the Detroit River into Canada at Windsor, Amherstburg or even Colchester. By 1861, there were an estimated 40,000 Blacks living in Canada, many of them in southern Ontario. They included men like William Howard Day.

Re-enactment of William Howard Day by Buxton descendant- As the only black man in a class of fifty at Oberlin College, I participated in local anti-slavery efforts and spoke at numerous black citizen’s conventions. In 1853, I founded the Alien American, a Cleveland weekly newspaper to support the Ohio black community. Last year, I emigrated to Dresden. My main occupation is now farming.

KS- The Dawn Settlement near Dresden, just 25 miles north of Buxton, was begun by Josiah Henson, a former slave whose autobiography so fascinated Harriet Beecher Stowe that she immortalized him as Uncle Tom. But the real ŒUncle Tom’ was an ordained minister and teacher whose primary goal was the education of his people. Barbara Carter, director of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, is his direct descendant.

Barbara Carter- The primary thing that I think my great, great grandfather focused on was wanting to build and education school and that’s really what he did. The school functioned not only as a school. A learning, educational facility, but also many, many skills, but also they soon built their own grist mills, factories, flour mills, potash - and it became a thriving community. That was when they could become self-sufficient, then the community would survive.

KS- It was the tools for self-sufficiency that made the Canadian settlements unique. After the Civil War, many Blacks left Canada and returned to the U.S., taking their new skills with them. The Dawn Settlement disbanded in 1868, but North Buxton survived. 17-year-old Takesha Brown is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of one of the original settlers.

TB- Once the States were freed, a lot of them went back to find family, friends, work, schooling and such, so the community did get smaller. But a majority of the settlement are descendants from the first settlers. And actually I’m a seventh generation from the first settlers.

Jerry Pickard- Today’s ceremony marks one of the greatest successes of the Underground Railroad. This year, on the 150th anniversary of its founding, Buxton and the vision of tolerance, cooperation and community are clearly alive and thriving. That their descendants continue to call Buxton home and care for the community is a testament to their great accomplishments.

KS- On Labor Day, 1999, the 150-year-old North Buxton/Elgin Settlement was dedicated as a National Historic Site in Canada. Both Dresden and Buxton are now on the African-Canadian Heritage Tour. But North Buxton is still very much alive. Today about 200 descendants from the Elgin Settlement live and work in its rural farmlands. And for the last seventy-five years ten times that number of descendants return to Buxton every Labor Day Weekend for a family reunion. For Infohio, I’m Karen Schaefer in North Buxton, Ontario.

For many African-Americans, the years since Emancipation have been a long and painful journey from bondage - from the days of sharecroppers and carpetbaggers to the turmoil of the Civil Rights era. But for the descendants of those first Black settlers in Canada, the outcome was very different. In this second of two reports, we’ll hear why Canadians and Americans alike are still making the pilgrimage to these Settlements of the North Star.

Settlements of the North Star, Part Two

In the 150 years since Reverend William King first brought his former slaves to freedom in Canada, the fundamental principles on which his settlement was based have remained unchanged. But while the community that still exists is a far cry from its heyday, the spirit of those first settlers lives on in their descendants. From North Buxton in Ontario, Canada, 90.3’s Karen Schaefer brings us this concluding report on the “Settlements of the North Star,” stories of the Underground Railroad in Canada.

Karen Schaefer- In the same year that Reverend William King established the Elgin Settlement at Buxton as a haven for runaway slaves, Edwin Larwill promulgated the only organized and sustained campaign against Blacks in Canadian history. A tinsmith and politician from nearby Chatham, Ontario, Larwill penned a petition protesting the Buxton community and collected 376 signatures, headed by his own.

Edwin Larwill (re-enactor)- The negro is a distinct species of the human family and in the opinion of your moralists is very inferior to that of the European. Amalgamation is as disgusting to the eye as it is immoral to its tendencies.

KS- By amalgamation, Larwill meant producing children of mixed race, something abhorred by white supremacists, but widely practiced in the antebellum southern United States. These and other concerns sparked a number of public debates over black settlers moving into the otherwise white communities of rural Ontario.

EL (re-enactor)- Imagine black councilors, school trustees, taskmasters, etc. The opinions of our institutions would be utterly destroyed.

Today I stand before you and together we have all seen that the reasons given against the formation of this settlement have been proven unfounded and false!

KS- But by the seventh anniversary of the settlement, most white farmers had formed a high opinion of the former fugitives. Land values had increased two- and threefold and the settlers’ thirst for education, religious faith and high moral principles had impressed all but the most hard-hearted of their new neighbors. In fact, in 1863, Reverend King noted that only half of the Buxton schoolchildren were Black, while the other half were of mixed parentage. The dreaded amalgamation had already taken place.

Muriel Newby- You see, this was a very mixed school. We didn’t know anything about all of this racial problem. We didn’t know anything about it. All of us went to school together.

KS- Today Buxton’s racial integration is just one of the many things that make this community unique. For the last 75 years, family and friends have been making the annual pilgrimage to Buxton to celebrate the spirit of homecoming.

Elsie Quinn Arnold- I was born in Oberlin, Ohio. I now live in Sandusky, I’ve been living there for 59 years and every year we come back to North Buxton to the Homecoming, because that’s where my mother was from.

Thelma Quinn Smith- She used to bring us up here when I was a small child. We’d come over on the boat and every year, we’d come up here, so this is my second family here.

KS- Elsie Quinn Arnold and her sisters, Thelma, Beulah and Ruby have always known their family history. After the years of slavery, when husbands, wives and children could be sold away, family is one of the joys of the Buxton community.

EQA- This is our great, great, great grandfather right there. The Watts, the Princes, the Travis, the Brooks, Shadds, Shreves - all those are related to us. These are my two great grandchildren - this is their first time up here.

KS- In North Buxton, even strangers are welcome. But for Americans like Benny Clark from Detroit that welcome has a special meaning.

Benny Clark- When we came up here that summer, they welcomed us like native sons returned. Because so many times you find that the story ends up at a dead end or it’s a terrible story in a ghetto and you wonder, have we actually progressed? Or have we taken a step backward? And in many ways we have taken a step backwards, because a lot of us have lost our pride. But where the pride has persisted, we did great.

KS- At the heart of Buxton’s success lies a fundamental between the United States and Canada. In Canada, the right of self-determination for Black citizens has always been upheld, a law neither custom nor government has ever broken. But in the U.S., slavery changed everything. Tony Burroughs, who teaches African-American Genealogy at the University of Chicago, believes that for many African-Americans freedom is no more a reality today than it was 150 years ago.

Tony Burroughs- The early settlement here, it was not only about going for freedom, it was not only building a community, it was about land. And that gives you your self-sufficiency. That never happened in the States. I mean, we got our forty acres and a mule, but then it was taken away. We passed from chattel slavery to wage slavery. And never earned enough even to make a living, let alone become independent. So I think it’s a major, major difference.

Geneva Brown Prince- I’m a relative of just a great big bunch of good people, good, strong people. We’ll be here forever.

KS- For the far-flung descendants of the original Elgin Settlement, North Buxton, Ontario will always be home. But for others Buxton is a hope, a prayer, a promise of how the world should be. For Infohio, I’m Karen Schaefer, reporting from Canada.

You can learn more about Ohio’s place in the Underground Railroad on our website. Just log onto to wcpn.org and click search. And tune in this Sunday as Bobby Jackson hosts a repeat broadcast of John Copeland: A Hero of Harper’s Ferry on Jazz Tracks. For 90.3, I’m Karen Schaefer.

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