Rankin House – Ripley, OH

During the Christmas holiday, my husband and I drove to Cincinnati, OH to visit family. Since I was unable to visit the Rankin House during my last trip in October 2010, I decided to trek the hour drive to Ripley, OH and visit the home on Liberty Hill.

Rankin House

From my readings, I had been able to imagine the house, on the Ohio River and the Kentucky bank. I saw sketches of the house and visited websites¹ and links to the Rankin house. What I was not prepared for was 1) how small the house actually is and, 2) how far away the house is from the Ohio River. (At least 100 wooden steps once you were past the path from the river.) Located on Liberty Hill, the house sheltered 2000 fugitive slaves making their way to freedom in Canada and was “a beckoning symbol of freedom that could be seen for many miles along the river.”²

The river was much narrower then – approximately 150 yards compared to the over 600 yards (p.214) from the Kentucky bank to the Ripley, Ohio bank. This was due to dredging of the river in the late 1800s and early 1900s as well as the lock and dam system put in place for the boat commerce.

View from river (telephoto lens)

As a Presbyterian minister, Rankin’s sermons “reiterated three basic principles: that all men were created equal, that God had ‘made of one blood all nations of men,’ and that every man ought to either do his own work or pay the man who does it for him.” (p.192) Although he never personally helped advance the fugitive slaves as a conductor (p. 207) (his sons generally did that), he was instrumental in developing three pillars of the Underground Railroad. The first consisted of antislavery Presbyterian ministers, the second included politicized white abolitionists (Ohio Anti-Slavery Society) and African-Americans were the third pillar. (p198-199)

If there was a light emanating, it was safe to cross. The Rankin website indicates that the light was either a lantern or a candle. Standing at the Ohio River, looking up at the house, I could barely make out the door or windows, let alone see if a candle was burning. However, at night, it might be a different view. On the other hand, perhaps he, or one of his 13 children, was at a location closer to the river. The Rankin house sent the fugitive slaves and their conductors north and westward, and many passed through the Coffin house in Fountain City, Ind.

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¹ “Rankin House.” Ohio History Central, accessed January 3, 2011. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=3098.

² Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005), 190.

Photo gallery link: Cole Furniture. http://www.colefurniture.com/gallery/rankin_house_ripley.htm (3 January 2011).

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 5:54 pm  Comments (4)  

United States’ slave trade

In the early days of our country, I thought most of the transatlantic trips of slave trading were made to the United States. However, the United States received only a fraction of the slaves.

…the United States imported only about 6 percent of the slaves…¹

but that still is over 600,000 Africans!

According to Bordewich, “During the entire span of the transatlantic slave trade, the vast majority of slaves, perhaps as much as 85 percent were taken to Brazil, the various European colonies in the Caribbean, and Spanish South America. The British colonies of North America and the United States imported only about 6 percent of the between ten and eleven million slaves that were brought from Africa. More than 40 percent of all slaves sold in North America were imported through Charleston, South Carolina.”¹

On the plantations the slaves were treated like tools. However, the manual labor they provided came at a price. “To return maximum value to their owners, slaves, like expensive tools, had to be properly maintained. They had to be fed, clothed, housed, and kept in work.”²

Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves - Library of Congress

Trying to stop the slave trade but the slave population continues to grow

In 1807, Jefferson signed in to law a bill that the 9th Congress passed – the Act to Prohibited the Importation of Slaves³ that would take effect
January 1, 1808. (Click here to read the document in text form.) “The total number of slaves swelled due to natural increase from just under 900,000 in 1800 to about 1.2 million in 1810, to slightly more than 2 million in 1830…and would double again by the outbreak of the Civil War.4

Even with the natural increase in slave population, there was little enforcement of the Act. According to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture website “Africans continued to be deported to the United States until 1860.”5 This website is extremely interesting which highlights essays, timelines as well as images, maps and events regarding the slave trade around the world.

¹Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005), 20.

²Ibid., 23.

³Paul Finkelman,  “Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves.” Schlager Group. accessed November 29, 2010. http://www.milestonedocuments.com/documents/view/act-to-prohibit-the-importation-of-slaves.

4 Bordewich, Bound for Canaan, 43.

5 New York Public Library, accessed November 29, 2010. http://abolition.nypl.org/.

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 11:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Amazing Grace and the slave scale

One of the best things about research is finding information about something you know, but didn’t know. While reading Bound for Canaan¹ I learned the song, “Amazing Grace” was written by Rev. John Newton (1725-1807), a reformed slave captain. Perhaps seeing the slaves lay “close to each other, like books upon a shelf…cramped, in irons for the most part” (p. 19) and God’s grace made him evaluate his ways (and livelihood) and finally view the slaves as human beings, not just as product. (For he was once blind but now can see…)

This song also makes me think about how the slaves sang negro spirituals – looking to God for salvation, praising his word. While searching on YouTube for an appropriate version, I came across ordained Seventh-day Adventist minister and world-renowned vocal artist, Wintley Phipps’ explanation and version of “Amazing Grace.” He explains that negro spirituals use the pentatonic scale (the five notes on the piano keyboard) – the black keys!

Here is Mr. Phipps’ YouTube version of “Amazing Grace.”²

And the lyrics to the song:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.³

¹Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan. The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005).

²“Wintley Phipps and Amazing Grace” [Video]. January 4, 2007, accessed November 27, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMF_24cQqT0.

³John Newton, Constitution Society, accessed November 29, 2010. http://www.constitution.org/col/amazing_grace.htm.

lay “close to each other, like books upon a shelf…cramped, are likewise in irons for the most part…
Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 3:41 pm  Comments (4)  

False bottom wagon – Levi Coffin house

When I read stories of how fugitive slaves were transported to the next station in false bottom wagons, MY mental image of that false bottom was changed when I saw the wagon at the Coffin house. One immediately thinks that the floor was lowered to accommodate the “cargo.” However, it was raised to give the illusion that there were more bags of grain being carried.

The fugitive slaves would lie down side by side in the wagon. Saundra Jackson, curator of the Levi Coffin House (see 11-17-2010 entry)  described that seven people were transported at a time this way. When I looked at the space, I thought maybe three adults at most would fit.

False bottom wagon where fugitives would hide while being transported

What is also neat about this photograph is that after visiting the Coffin House, I came upon the chapter in Bound for Canaan by Bordewich had almost the exact photo!

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 5:58 pm  Comments (6)  

Levi Coffin House

Levi Coffin House front entrance also showing side entrance

On my journey to learn more about the Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania, I stopped at the Coffin House in Fountain City, Indiana in October. It is a pretty fascinating museum, but only opened certain times in the spring to fall months. I was in luck that a tour was being conducted for Indiana University – East (near Indianapolis). I caught the tail end of the tour when they were headed to the barn, but was then given a private tour by Saundra Jackson.

One way the fugitive slaves were directed/transported to the Coffin house was from the Rankin home in Ripley, Ohio.

Although the Coffin House is  National Landmark, it is maintained and operated by the Levi Coffin House Association. Access the Levi Coffin House website here.

Below is a slide show from inside the house as well as the barn.

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Anti-slavery and equality

On Tuesday, November 9, 2010 I viewed the traveling exhibit Liberty on the Border at the Center for History in South Bend, IN. This exhibit explores the Civil War years as well as the years prior and after the war. Its focus was primarily on the Ohio-Kentucky border with the Ohio River being the dividing line – for North and South, for free and slave states. This area is in the proximity (give or take a few river miles!) of my research in Pennsylvania.

Although the pre-war part of the exhibit was small, it was nevertheless interesting. One exhibit had this statement -a statement that truly sums up many of the feelings towards blacks as viewed from a white perspective.

Many who wanted to end slavery did not think blacks and whites were equal. Hating slavery was not always the same as believing in equality.

Fugitive slaves that made it to free states didn’t necessarily have a great life. Or a safe one at that.

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 2:20 pm  Comments (4)  

On The Underground Railroad poem

My research has led me in different directions, much like a map with different routes to take. On one of the “paths” I took during this journey, I found was a poem by Frances C. Taylor. This is from her book, The Trackless Trail Leads On.¹ Ms. Taylor writes about the Underground Railroad in Kennett Square, Chester county and surrounding communities in eastern Pennsylvania. Kennett Square “is the city known as the hub of the Underground Railroad activity in the important Chester county.”²

On The Underground Railroad

On and on in the dead of night
The weary slave seeks
Freedom through flight.
His clothes are tattered,
His feet are bare;
They bleed from frostbite.
Does no one care?

He follows the Star
With a hope that shines
As dark, through the night,
The trail he finds.
“The Underground Railroad”-
He’s heard its name
This railroad to freedom
Is not in vain.

“As God as my witness,
I’ll follow the Star
O’er the Underground Railroad
Though I know it’s far
To Canada’s shores.
But I’ll then be free
With manumission papers
Issued to me.

Many hands have guided
These weary feet
From station to station
May I repeat –
The conductors that guided me
Have been led by God
By a faith
That is free.”

The Underground Railroad continues to evoke imagery in many forms. Stories, family lore even poems like this one.

¹Frances C. Taylor,  The Trackless Trail Leads On, “On The Underground Railroad,” (Privately published, 1995.)

²James A. McGowan, Station master on the Underground Railroad: the life and letters of Thomas Garrett, accessed October 29, 2010. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2005.)

Published in: on October 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm  Comments (2)  

National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center

On my way to western Pennsylvania, I made a few stops to visit locations that had information on Underground Railroad activities. In Indiana I visited the Levi Coffin house. (More information on that visit in later blogs.) Going through Ohio, one of my stops included, albeit briefly, at the National Afro-American Museum.

According to the Green County (OH) Convention and Visitor Nat'l Afro-American Museum & Cultural CenterBureau’s pamphlet the museum “focuses on African-American life between 1945 – 1965…This museum is the nation’s premier facility dedicated to the interpretation and preservation of the African-American experience in the US.” It is located in Wilberforce, OH (937) 376-4944 or 1-800-752-2603 x 114 and is adjacent to Central State University.

I wasn’t able to Stone outside Nat'l Afro-American Museum & Cultural Centerspend much time as it was late afternoon on a Friday. As a quilter, I wished I had more time as their main exhibit was “The Journey of Hope In America.” These were quilts inspired by President Obama. This exhibit will remain up until December 18, 2010.

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 3:18 pm  Comments (1)  

All men created equal?

One of the books I am reading is Bound for Canaan by Fergus M. Bordewich. Its subtitle is The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America and it is EXCELLENT! I plan to write about certain interesting passages in future blogs.

A fascinating passage is from Chapter 2. This chapter deals with Thomas Jefferson. It was important to note that Jefferson owned slaves, had “relations” with a slave woman Sally Hemings and perhaps fathered her children (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account). He thought blacks were “inferior to whites in both body and mind…but hated slavery as an institution.” ¹

However, Jefferson resolutely believed in individuals’ rights. Bordewich points out that Jefferson’s “Preamble…would be quoted in almost every important manifesto of the abolitionist movement, and cited countless times by the stationmasters and conductors of the Underground Railroad as an inspiration for the risks they undertook to help fugitive slaves on their way north:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.

From now on, as long as slavery lasted, the burden of proof would lie upon  slaveholders to show why the blunt declaration that all men are created equal did not mean precisely what it said.”²

Why did the slaveholders not recognize that these men and women were human beings? I recall my meeting with Mr. Carl Westmoreland, senior historian from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (see posting in October 2009). He told me that slave owners in general didn’t believe the slaves were people; they didn’t look into the eyes of the slaves, therefore, in their minds slaves weren’t human. Eyes make a connection, the human connection.

I have difficulty understanding how Jefferson could be on both sides of the issue. He owned slaves, but he believed in individual rights. He disliked the institution of slavery but thought blacks were inferior to whites. Yet, he writes a preamble that inspires others to do what is right…to help a fugitive slave gain his liberty.

¹Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2005), 34.

²Ibid., 37-38.

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 10:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Influencial books to read regarding UGRR

The sword of honor. From captivity to freedom by Hannibal Augustus Johnson. Chronicles the system of the Underground Railroad. I downloaded it and will print it out at IUSB. You can download it from google books. Mr. Westmoreland suggested it.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave. Written by himself. I found this in our local library (in Elkhart, IN). The preface is a bit difficult. Suggested by Ken Smith.

Once I’m done with those, I plan to research books about Harriet Tubman.

Published in: on October 23, 2009 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment