Lionel Richie and cemeteries

I have always enjoyed Lionel Richie‘s music – from his time as a member of the Commodores to his career as a solo artist – his music always resonated to me. When I saw he was going to be on NBC’s  “Who Do You Think You Are?” I thought there might be a connection to my research.

About half way through the episode, Richie travels to a cemetery to look for his relative’s headstone.  It was late fall and many leaves were on the ground.  When his car pulled up and he saw how disheveled the grounds were, I could empathize immediately with him.

Last fall on my visit to the grave sites of people I’m researching, I found a church cemetery that is completely forgotten. This little cemetery is near where the Little Zion church once stood and is no longer readily visible. The church was important in organizing its members and assisting fugitive slaves. Noah West’s headstone (see previous blog) was pushed off its base and debris covered the stone. I had to brush away debris to find it and take a picture.

Noah West

Noah West

Another cemetery I visited was a black cemetery where the parents of a bishop of Wilberforce University* are buried.

Arnett's grave site

However, just next to this one is a cemetery similar to the one Lionel Richie found. It bothered me to see how nobody cared to maintain the area.

Black Cemetery - overgrown

Black Cemetery close up of headstone

Black Cemetery close up of headstone

Although Richie was looking for a relative and I was not, I thought how, during these individuals’ times, they were important. Now, they are completely forgotten. Their relatives in the 21st century do not know about them, their activities or the importance of those activities. This is just like Richie not knowing how instrumental his great-grandfather was to African-Americans.

I think again about how we are but a speck of dust in the grand scheme of things. I guess it doesn’t matter what happens after I die. It is the now that should concern me. Have I lived up to my potential? Have I treated others fairly? With kindness? My “impact” shouldn’t be remembered on a head stone, but in the actions I take every day.

*Founded in 1856, Wilberforce University can trace its origin to a period of history before the Civil War, when the Ohio Underground Railroad was established as a means of escape for all those blacks who sought their freedom in the North from the yoke of slavery, one of the destination points of this railroad became Wilberforce University. As the Underground Railroad provided a route from physical bondage, the University was formed to provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance.¹

¹Wilberforce University, accessed March 13, 2011.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 9:14 pm  Comments (2)  

Time Passages

For the past several weeks, months really, I have been researching figures that played an important part of history in western Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad. They are long forgotten by most in their communities because of time passing.

As I transcribed my audio notes, I kept thinking about the people who partook in the Underground Railroad in this area. Most were not recognized, with fewer immortalized. As I kept thinking about these various people, Al Stewart’s song “Time Passages” kept playing through my mind. I read the lyrics and was surprised at how close their meaning was relating to my research.

…I felt the beat of my mind go
Drifting into time passages
Years falling in the fading light
Time passages…¹

I visited several cemeteries in this search about those that played a part of the Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania. Two tombstones continue to disturb me. One was of Noah West. He was part of the Little Zion African Methodist Episcopal church, a leader in fact. According to the history book by Boyd Crumine

…Little Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, situated in West Pike Run township, was organized in 1844, under the ministration of Rev. Augustus R. Green… In that year the society purchased a building lot of Mrs. Mary Lewis and her son Charles, and upon it they erected a small log house and gave it the name of Little Zion Church…The present membership is divided into two classes. The first class, having Abraham H. Wallace for leader, has fourteen members. Class No. 2 has also fourteen members, with Noah West as class-leader.²

However, when I visited West’s grave site, I found the head stone was knocked off its pedestal, weeds and leaves entwining it. It was hidden, forgotten. Time passed in several ways for him.

Noah West tombstone

Noah West

Noah West

The other headstone that stands out in memory is that of Reverend William Ralph. Located in Monongahela Cemetery, it is barely legible. The only way I knew it was his was because I talked with the caretaker in the office and he produced a ledger that identified Rev. Ralph’s plot.

William Ralph headstone

William Ralph headstone - close up

There’s something back here that you left behind
Oh time passages…¹

This quest to find these individuals provoked me to wonder how people in the next 200 years will find individuals that made contributions to the civil rights movement, to the desegregation in the south as well as other types of assistance to make the world more humane. I am sure Martin Luther King’s memorial, a national historic site, will stand for a long time. However, what about others…others that were instrumental, but played lesser roles? How long before their tombstones become illegible? How long before their contributions are forgotten?

…Hear the echoes and feel yourself starting to turn
Don’t know why you should feel
That there’s something to learn…¹

UPDATE: This song reminds us just how important it is to document events and people as to not forget those that have helped us be they big names or just the average man/woman.

¹Al Stewart, and Peter White. Time Passages. (New York: Dick James Music, Inc., 1978), accessed February 18. 2011.

²Boyd Crumrine, History of Washington County, Pennsylvania with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. (Philadelphia: L. H. Leverts & Co., 1882), accessed February 18, 2011. Transcribed by Helen S. Durbin of Greene Co., PA in March 1998. Published in March 1998 on the Washington County, PA USGenWeb pages at

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 6:17 pm  Comments (2)  

New connection, new insights to California, PA UGRR site

California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed~ Ron Paglia

In January I received on email from a gentleman, Ron Paglia, who was researching an individual from my family, namely my great-aunt Dee Dee (Mary Margaret Chester) and her connection to the Stone House Players.

Miss Chester was in to the dramatics and created a group called the Stone House Players. Mr. Paglia was researching an individual (Sally Cairns) who was part of the group. He was made aware of my connection and me to Miss Chester through the California Area Historical Society. (I had visited there several times.) They gave him my email address as well as my blog/research address on the Underground Railroad in the area.

After conversing via email, we spoke on January 20th. I was able to give him several reference points regarding his research, but since I was only 10 years old when Dee Dee died, I suggested he speak with my older sister, Diane. She lived at the Latta Stone house with our great-aunt and even attended elementary school for a few years in Roscoe, PA.

Shutterly House - Front and side

After we spoke, Mr. Paglia sent me his recollections on the Shutterly house at 800 Park Street in California, PA and its connection to the Underground Railroad. His recollections are as follows:

I believe you said you talked to a woman there during your visit in this area in 2009. James “Moe” Giovanardi lived there and he and I graduated from California Community High School in 1957. His sister, Janet Giovanardi, graduated in 1955. I’m not sure of whatever happened to Moe, although I do recall that the folks who organized our traditional class reunions lost track of him over the years. I did find references to a Joseph and Christina Giovanardi owning the home and living there in the 1970s and 1980s, but I did not know them.

As I mentioned on the home, I was in the home on several occasions, because Moe and I were friends. And I recall going into the basement of the home and seeing a section boarded up. The story was that the opening behind the boards led to a tunnel that was part of the Underground Railroad and led to a spot near the Monongahela River in West Brownsville (Washington County), just across the river from Brownsville (Fayette County). The story making the rounds in those years also alluded to the tunnel passing under a Boy Scout campsite just outside of California on property that now houses the Center In The Woods senior center and The Oaks independent housing complex just off Route 88 between California and Blainesburg.

As Boy Scouts, we often held meetings and outings there and even camped overnight at times. There were stories about “ghosts … in the ground below us” as we sat around a campfire at night. The legend also indicated that the slaves who used the tunnel “wound up in Brownsville” and made their way to other homes that were part of the Underground Railroad there. One of those homes supposedly was located just off-Broadway (street or avenue), which led to Route 40. I do recall that Moe Giovanardi had relatives who lived there (perhaps a cousin) and that we went there a few times. Moe was one of the few guys in California who had a car and he often asked me if I wanted to go for a ride.

Despite all of the stories surrounding the Giovanardi home being part of the Underground Railroad, I have never seen any documentation of that, nor have I ever talked to anyone in California who could verify it.

Other buildings in California as you no doubt know also were linked to the Underground Railroad, but like other towns in the Mon Valley, California has been the focus of a lot of folklore much of it never confirmed, etc. Similar stories have evolved in Fayette City and Monongahela (Bethel AME Church).

Just like the Latta Stone House being connected to the Underground Railroad, many folklore just don’t pan out to be the truth. However, who are we, in the 21st century to say that perhaps the occupants of these homes didn’t direct, loan horses, or give water and or food to a fugitive slave or two?

Ron Paglia has over 54 years experience in the newspaper, public relations and freelance professions.

Uniontown, PA and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the legal holiday of Martin Luther King’s birthday is celebrated, I am reminded of the tie of Martin Luther King, Jr. to my research on the Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania.

AME Zion Church Uniontown, PA

When Pat Trimble took me to the AME Zion Church in Uniontown, the only connection I knew was that African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches were part of the Underground Railroad history. What I did not know was how significant this particular church was in relation to Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to civil rights.

AME Zion Church

AME Zion Church side view Uniontown, PA

Pat Trimble - standing where original church was located

The AME Zion congregation has owned this particular property since the 1850s. The current church, built in 1913, is the third church constructed on this spot. Reverend James Lawson, the minister in the 1920s, and his wife, had a son who grew up to be an influence on how Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the civil rights activities.

James M Lawson, Jr., was born in Uniontown, PA in 1928 and learned firsthand how ugly and cruel people could be to black individuals. In the fourth grade, after slapping a white boy in the face for the disparaging remarks made about Lawson’s race, James told his mother what he had done.

There must be a better way

However, Mrs. Lawson “did not answer with words but with a simple, profound gesture. She turned her back on young Jimmy. ‘Well Jimmy, what good did that do?’ were her first words. For the next few, heavy minutes, his mother gave him a “soliloquy” on his family, his faith, and his values. ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way,’ she ended. In that moment, Lawson decided to practice nonviolence.”¹

After studying satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance developed by Gandhi, Lawson entered Oberlin College in 1955 as a graduate student in Theology. There, Lawson was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. and later enrolled in Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. As a reverend, Lawson moved to Memphis, TN in 1962. Six years later, he asked Dr. King come to Memphis to give the famous Mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968 in support of the black sanitation workers’ strike. This was the day before King’s assassination.

“Martin Luther King, Jr., once called Rev. Lawson ‘the leading non-violence theorist in the world.’  He was at the forefront of the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s as the mentor and leader of students who conducted the sit-ins that integrated the lunch counters, libraries and voting booths of the South, as well as the Freedom Riders who helped end forced segregation on buses and trains.” ²

Lawson continues to speak out on civil liberties and human rights.

¹Joshua Ogaldez, “Reverend Lawson: Another World is Possible.” Associated Content by Yahoo!, October 16, 2010 accessed January 18, 2011

²ACLU. “Rev. James Lawson, Jr., Renowned Civil Rights Leader, to Chair ACLU’s National Advisory Council,” May 4, 2006, accessed January 18, 2011.

Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm  Comments (2)  

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.

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. (3 January 2011).

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 5:54 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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UGRR site in Roscoe, PA

The Monongahela Valley Area
Underground Railroad sites

Latta Stone House -1 Star*

The Latta Stone House circa 1900

Located on Mt. Tabor Road, in a city originally called Lucyville, the Latta Stone House is what started me on this journey.  The Stockdale family built this house in 1805. Legend had it that Allen Stockdale built it, but my genealogical research has Allen born in 1802.¹ I am not sure which Stockdale built it, but I have documents proving my great great grandfather O.D Latta purchased the house and land in 1869. It stayed in our family until 1980, after my grandfather died and his estate settled.

Professor Mainwaring’s site analysis describes it as a poorly documented Underground Railroad site with the only reference in an article by Mary Herron in The Washington Observer,² October 29, 1937. Herron’s article describes what I heard as a child growing up and visiting my relatives.  My Aunt Dee Dee’s (Mary Margaret Chester) bedroom was upstairs in the southwest corner of the house. Her closet, the only bedroom with a full-length closet, contained a false ceiling that led the only way into the attic. As a child, my brother and sisters were told how this house was part of the Underground Railroad. We were then lifted up into the attic to see where the slaves hid. I remember how it was pitch black up there. A fugitive slave could hide in plain sight.

Latta Stone House in the winter circa 1960s

Who actually lived in the house during the 1850s? Were they were pro- or anti-slavery? Throughout my research I have been unable to determine who legally owned or lived in the house from 1830 – 1863.  I know Allen Stockdale died in 1845, but I’m not sure he lived there. This also brings up the notion that all of this could have been a myth.

But if it was a myth, why? Was it to make the house more saleable? Was it to elevate the social status of the occupants? All I have is family lore, no documented facts. But it wasn’t a hotel with a registry. Records were not kept on who passed through the area needing help. The only tie I can draw is that area Quakers helped fugitive slaves. Thomas Stockdale, Allen’s father, was a Quaker but was banished from the local meeting group shortly after his arrival to the area in the late 1700s.

Latta Stone House circa 1977 from Mt. Tabor Rd.

I also wonder why Professor Mainwaring gives the Latta Stone House only one star and the Shutterly House three stars. Could it be that the Latta Stone House is situated in an area where no other reported Underground Railroad activity was made? The Shutterly House was a few blocks from the Job Johnson Hotel, a documented site, so was it elevated in plausibility? I think the Latta Stone House as an Underground Railroad site is possible being so close (four blocks) to the Monongahela River, but couldn’t you say that about other houses in the area…?

*1 North Star: Probability of site being a stop is low. Evidence is very slim and not very good. Local oral traditions may be the only source.

¹Department of Commerce. Census of Population and Housing, 1810. (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1810.)

²Mary Herron, “Latta Stone House Is Most Perfect Virginia Type Mansion In The Area, ” (The Washington Observer, October 29, 1937.)

Rating system of sites and individuals described

While researching the Underground Railroad activity in the western Pennsylvania area, I was fortunate to meet Pat Trimble. He was a past president of the Fayette County (PA) Genealogical Society and part time historian with an interest in the area’s involvement and some of the key players with the Underground Railroad.

L-R: Prof. Tom Mainwaring, Pat Trimble

Pat has been instrumental in guiding my thesis progress and I visited him in June 2010 to see firsthand the areas we discussed this spring. Our first stop was to meet history professor Thomas Mainwaring at the Washington Jefferson College in Washington, PA. I had spoken briefly with Professor Mainwaring, before my visit so it was nice putting a face to the voice.

In Professor Mainwaring’s office, I explained the visual thesis project I hoped to present and the hypothesis I was working on, that the Latta Stone House was part of the Underground Railroad and that key community leaders and preachers were involved with the Underground Railroad. Professor Mainwaring is very knowledgeable about this topic, as he had done considerable research of Washington County’s (PA) involvement with the Underground Railroad. He gently told me that the area I was looking at was too small to find much for a thesis and suggested I expand the area to the Monongahela Valley.

Professor Mainwaring gave me part of the document he wrote when researching the area where the Latta Stone House is located. His research of sites ranged “from those that are extremely well documented to those that are certainly bogus.” He was more concerned about “developing biographical portraits of individuals about whom very little or nothing is known.” I had the same thoughts in wanting to find out about individuals tied to the Latta Stone House that could have helped with the Underground Railroad.

Tom Mainwaring

In Tom Mainwaring's office

Although his rating system, he readily admits, is not an exact science, he tries to make distinctions between “convincing proof” – a five North Star rating and “no evidence” or a zero North Star rating. He used “North Star” after the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper.

His rating system¹ is as follows:

5 North Stars: Convincing proof from several independent sources that the site was an Underground Railroad station. Written contemporary evidence and primary sources are available.
4 North Stars: Site was almost certainly a stop, but lack primary sources for confirmation or is only mentioned in one source.
3 North Stars: Preponderance of evidence suggest that the site was a stop. Some details or stories exist about the site, but the evidence is second-hand.
2 North Stars: The site may have been a stop, but few or no details are available. Evidence is fragmentary or incomplete, and may come from only one source.
1 North Star: Probability of site being a stop is low. Evidence is very slim and not very good. Local oral traditions may be the only source.
0 North Stars: No evidence or a spurious site. Evidence contradicts claims made for the site.

This evaluation system gets at the heart of what historians use as fact that can be proven. Nevertheless, how can something that operated clandestinely, where participants were knowingly breaking the law, be held to the same scrutiny history demands? Records were not kept in most cases for fear they would be used as evidence to prosecute individuals or disclose others involved in this type of activity. Do we discount or dismiss individuals, events and or sites because they do not measure against the standard yard stick used? Do we believe everything from folklore? How DO we evaluate events like this?

¹Thomas Mainwaring, “Abandoned Tracks, The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania.” unpublished document, Washington Jefferson College. Washington, PA, 2010.

Published in: on October 24, 2010 at 4:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wrestling with Frederick Douglass


Book Cover

This has been a hard blog to write. I finished Frederick Douglass’ book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave over the weekend. It was very well written. Very descriptive of the treatment of slaves (but not as gruesome as descriptions in a Stephen King novel.) At times I became distraught and needed to put down the book and do something else. It is very hard for me to understand or grasp how treatment of these people, these slaves, could happen and how they could endure this for decades.

The toughest part to comprehend was how slaveholders could kill a slave for disobedience; beat naked women with whips; or how they could demand so much work from the slaves and give them so little food. I’m trying to wrap my 20th century (USA) mind and values and understand 19th century practices.

But then, I think about today and the world I live in. There is still slavery. Still oppression of people. Working conditions in countries like China must be similar to what the Negroes experienced albeit, maybe not the personal injury they suffered.

This thinking led me to the tank man from Tiananmen Square in 1989, just 20 years ago. How that lone (unidentified) student risked his life to stand up to the oppressive force symbolized in those tanks. Much like what Frederick Douglass did in his desire for freedom.

Douglass was not an instigator nor an agitator. He did not stir the emotions of others to a point of revolt against their slaveholder. Just like tank man, he allowed the desire of freedom to quietly build within until he had to break the bonds of his slavery. He eloquently references Patrick Henry to the fugitive slaves’ plight…

“In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.” (p86)

Published in: on November 6, 2009 at 10:47 am  Leave a Comment