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)  

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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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)  

UGRR sites in California, PA

The Monongahela Valley Area
Underground Railroad sites

California, PA sites – 3 Stars*

My recent visit to the Washington County (PA) area was in October. I had my trusty guide, Pat Trimble driving me to various sites listed in Professor Thomas Mainwaring’s document as well as introducing me to other people in the area and across the river into Fayette County (PA).

The first site I’ll discuss is in California, PA also known to local residents as Little California. (Washington, PA is also known as Little Washington as not to confuse it with the nation’s capital.)

Job Johnson Hotel – 3 Stars*

This site is no longer standing. It was named for one of the founders of California, but was torn down in the 20th century for another building.  Built on the Corner of Wood and First streets, it was situated very close to the Monongahela River which enabled fugitive slaves to be hidden at the hotel and then taken to Washington, PA.

According to Crumrine, “ with S.S. Rothwell and a very few others on this side of the county, [Johnson] always stood ready to lend a helping hand to those of sable hue who, traveling via the ‘Underground Railway,’ sought freedom in Canada.”¹

Lewis Shutterly House -3 stars*

Shutterly House - Front and side

Located at 800 Park St in California, PA. Professor Mainwaring site analysis states there is not much documentation for this site. However, a caption of the house in the California, Pennsylvania states “that the house is believed to have been an Underground Station.” ²

Shutterly House - Wooden addition

The house is still standing and I was able to talk with the resident, Janet Giovanardi. She told me she had lived in this house since she was 12 years old. When I asked her her age, I wasn’t given an answer in years, just that she had lived there for many years.

Ms. Janet Giovanardi

If I had to guess, I would put Ms. Giavanardi in her late seventies or early eighties. Of course, she could be older. Ms. Giavanardi indicated that her parents as well as her grandparents had lived here. She stated that when she is gone, it will go to her son.

When asked about the history of the home and its ties to Underground Railroad activities, she didn’t remember “anything about that.” She was more concerned about telling me she had termites that needed to be exterminated.

Window on the wooden addition

I asked her about the addition (that was inhabitable) and she didn’t remember it not always being there. “My son keeps telling me to tear it down, maybe I should,” she lamented. If she was concerned about the expense of exterminating termites, I’m sure the expense of tearing an addition off the existing house would trouble her more.

As I traveled home, I wondered why Ms. Giovanardi never heard stories about the house’s activities in regards to the Underground Railroad. I think about the Latta Stone House reputation for having helped hide fugitive slaves. The house came into our family in 1869 but the stories were handed down to each generation. But here at the Shutterly house, the current resident is a descendant of the people that supposedly helped fugitive slaves when taking them to the Job Johnson Hotel was too dangerous.

My other thoughts ran to not discussing these types of clandestine activities with children living in the house for fear they might tell someone and the those activities would be exposed to the authorities. One of those children had to be Ms. Giovanardi parent, if the dates line up correctly. I wonder if I would be able to trace who lived in the house using US censuses and not knowing the individuals last names, only the address.

Back door of Shutterly House - A Doorway to Freedom?

I also wonder if Ms. Giovanardi’s grandparents would be the Shutterlys. The 1860 census³ indicates Lewis Shutterly was married, had 3 children and was a coal merchant. Mr. Shutterly died in 1869.

10/29/11 UPDATE: I have been unable to find a phone number for Ms. Giovanardi for a follow up conversation.

*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.

¹Boyd Crumrine,  History of Washington County, Pennsylvania: with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men. (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts and Co., 1882. pg 629.)

²Thomas Mainwaring, “Abandoned Tracks, The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania.” unpublished document, (Washington Jefferson College, Washington, PA, 2010.)

³Department of Commerce. Census of Population and Housing, 1860. (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1860.)

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)  

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  

Connection back to California University of PA

When I spoke with Mr. Westmoreland he indicated there was a professor at California University of PA that did extensive research on the underground railroad in western PA. He couldn’t remember the name so I called my cousin to see if he knew it.

My cousin, Kirk Holman gave me the number of the university (724-938-4000) and suggested I contact the history department. I called and talked to the secretary of the department and was directed to the Dr. Confer.

I left a message for Dr. Confer explaining what my project was about and ask for a call back. I left that message on Wednesday so I’ll try again next week.

Published in: on October 23, 2009 at 8:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sr. historian @ UGRR Freedom Center fans embers of student

On Monday, October 19 my husband Bob and I traveled to the Underground Railroad Freedom Center museum in Cincinnati, OH to speak with senior historian, Carl Westmoreland on my project searching for clues to find information regarding our family home involvement with the Underground Railroad in western PA.

First let me say, the man is awesome. He is that teacher you had that help stir the emotions within you to learn more than you thought you possibly could.

Mr. Westmoreland was a gentle, soft-spoken man with a fascinating history. His undergraduate degree is from Knoxville, TN with his master’s from the University of Cincinnati. That degree was in history and urban planning. Most of his career was centered in restoring property in the Cincinnati area.

His philosophy came to light which summed up his training and career:

“Teach who you are, preserve the knowledge of where you’ve been and to learn how to treat people.”

Mr. Carl Westmoreland

Mr. Carl Westmoreland

We met Mr. Westmoreland when the museum was closed. He was not there when we arrived, so we waited in the lobby for him. When he walked in the door and called to us, I was taken aback a bit. I was expecting to see a man, dressed in a suit and tie greet us. However, there stood a man in black coveralls and a black hat shaking our hands. He later explained he was refurbishing an old family home. (We saw the blueprints, but I was at a loss looking at them.)

Reason for visit
Once we were seated I explained why we were there; basically needing guidance to continue my research. I showed him my family lineage, information I gained from the Washington County Historical Society, maps showing the relationship of the Latta Stone house to the river, railroad tracks and to Washington, PA. His comment was the geographic area I was in was a rich area for this activity (underground railroad.)

He offered some insights to check out – Is there a local historian? What religious affiliation were the owners of the Stone house? But he also gave a good tip: check the local newspapers of the time (1830 – 1850s) to see who was prosecuted for violating the fugitive slave act. (I do have a contact name of the son of the Roscoe Ledger’s publisher. Perhaps he can direct me to the newspapers archives.)

Safe house?
I asked how the fugitive slave would know if ‘a house on the hill’ was a safe house. “He wouldn’t,” was his response. The fugitive slave watched and then just took his chances. I could see how the odds would improve in the northern states, but what about for someone traveling in the southern states? “Many times the fugitive slave would blend in on the plantation and work a few days then move on,” said Mr. Westmoreland.

Beliefs of the family
Just as I suspected, the church was a major contributor in the process – either for or against. When thinking about my family Mr. Westmoreland asked me to check if the person was an officer or was he a loaner in the church? Were there were church minutes? What were the sermons about? These things could point to a person’s beliefs.

His point to all this was to find out if there was a supportive environment in the area where the Latta Stone House sits. Many times an individual couldn’t help directly but if the environment supported helping the fugitive slave, that individual could instruct the slave to someone who could help – be it food, lodging, transportation and such.


Published in: on October 23, 2009 at 5:46 pm  Leave a Comment