Ohio was the Underground Railroad’s ‘Grand Central Station’
Kathy Schulz
Tom Stafford My Opinion
Kathy Schulz’s book “The Underground Railroad in Ohio”
Now living in Santa Fe, N.M., Kathy Schulz’s interest in Ohio’s status as the “Grand Central Station of this secret kind of railroad” began during her childhood in Ohio’s Lawrence County, miles from Wheeling, which was in Virginia when the Civil War began.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

—Toni Morrison

As all literate Buckeyes know, the “Rio” in Rio Grande rhymes with Ohio.

But while reading Kathy Schulz’s inspired book “The Underground Railroad in Ohio,” I came to see obvious parallels between the desperation of the escapes across the Ohio River in the final years of slavery and those now taking place on that river they have in Texas.

Not only was our state’s namesake river the border of the Mason-Dixon Line that divided free and slave states, Schulz reminds us, but while Underground Railroad maps show “few specific thoroughfares (of escape) in eastern states” they show “an intricate spider web of routes blanketing Ohio.”

“Numbers are hard to pin down,” Schulz writes in the book ($23.99, History Press). “But more enslaved people seem to have escaped through Ohio than through all other states combined.”

Now living in Santa Fe, N.M., her interest in Ohio’s status as the “Grand Central Station of this secret kind of railroad” began during her childhood in Ohio’s Lawrence County, miles from Wheeling, which was in Virginia when the Civil War began.

“I cannot remember not knowing about the Underground Railroad. I knew the houses around where we lived.”

North of Ironton, the community of Poke Patch was in the environs of Dirty Face and Negro Creeks and the settlement of Blackfork “within walking distance.”

In its earliest days, the paths to freedom were “primarily a system of Blacks helping Blacks” escape through Ohio to Canada and was virtually unknown in the Deep South.

“Enslaved people in the border states of Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky heard tell of the Underground Railroad but understood that travel to it was risky; they were entirely on their own until they crossed into a Northern state.”

Those trying to travel to freedom from Tennessee, she adds, “braved a meticulously planned, weeks-long journey that required cunning and perseverance.”

With her research librarian’s eye for detail and respect for truths unvarnished, Schulz provides a primer for those seeking to understand the life, time and workings of the Underground Railroad.

Inevitably, her account also illuminates the nation’s march into what William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, called the “irrepressible conflict” of the Civil War.

Schulz says the name railroad attached to the effort because it was a cutting-edge technology of the time. Some freedom-seekers did go by rail, most often dressed in finery to hide their identities.

But they were more likely to travel at night on the deserted and walkable paths of the Ohio- Erie Canal -- and most often overland.

Daytime boat traffic along the Ohio River made bustling river towns well aware of the changing nature of commerce in slaves as the United States became a major cotton exporter. That was, thanks, in part, to Eli Whitney’s simple and genius invention, the cotton gin.

International politics also played a crucial role in events, in what Schulz calls a “curious” way.

When British Member of Parliament William Wilberforce finally ended the international trade in slaves, the effect was to limit the supply of slaves in America, simultaneously increasing their monetary value and the stakes of the conflict.

Writes Schulz: “After 1807, the slave population in the United States was regarded by Southerners as a valued but limited resource that needed to be aggressively bred and developed,” valuing people even more as though they were animal stock. While cotton “was not profitably grown in the upper south,” Schulz explains, “money could be made (there) by selling slaves from there to the deeper South,” where demand was higher.

In the Kentucky of the 1840s, Schulz writes, “the slaves themselves were regarded as a major product of the state, similar to Thoroughbreds, hemp, whiskey, salt and tobacco.”

All were sold in the Natchez, Miss., market at the southern end of terminus of the trail that extended to the Ohio River town of Mayfield, Ky.

“Whoever coined the phrase ‘to be sold down the river’ was surely a Kentuckian,” Schulz writes.

In an example of what goes around comes around, the traffic in slaves heading south “increased fugitive traffic heading in the opposite direction … not fleeing Kentucky as much as they were escaping the inevitable pull into the Deep South,” Schulz writes.

“They knew they had to get out … to protect their nuclear family unit — and to stay out of the cotton fields.”

With the proper nuance, she describes how the migration of New Englanders to northern Ohio after the American Revolution seeded a population less enamored of slavery than in Kentucky, where Virginians tended to migrate. While she early on minimizes, she later confirms the importance of Quakers in the Underground Railroad but credits other denominations as well.

A game-changer for the nation and Underground Railroad was passage the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

As standard histories report, Northerners once neutral about slavery were angry with the legislation requiring that they participate in the recapture of people whose enslavement they began increasingly to oppose.

Schulz here provides an on-point example of the effect of rising tensions on both sides of the river.

Although it promised to tie them more tightly to the economic engine that was Cincinnati, “Kentuckians balked” over the proposed construction of Roebling’s Bridge to connect the states,” she tells us. Their worry: That “a huge amount of their financial wealth (in slaves) would be able to simply walk across — or be conveyed across — this new bridge.”

To those unhappy with slavery, its legal status soon was cemented in place by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott cases, the principle of which Schulz states succinctly: “no resident of African descent could ever have the rights of a U.S. citizen.”

Schulz devotes a chapter each to two African American men who are heroes of the Underground Railroad. One is Addison White, whose escape from Kentucky to Mechanicsburg, Ohio, made national headlines when federal marshals tried but failed to capture and return him to his owner. Ohio Gov. and future U.S.

Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase negotiated an agreement in which White’s owner was compensated with funds donated by people including citizens of the Mechanicsburg area.

Inspired by a brief account of his story found in the basement of the Wittenberg Library, “I think I’ve read everything that’s been in print about Addison White,” a man she says should be revered as Davy Crockett and Paul Revere have been. Her work resulted both in the book and an invitation to contribute to “Freedom Flight,” the Mad River Theater Works play about White’s legacy that premiered in Yellow Springs and is now on tour.

The second hero is named in the chapter titled “John Parker of Rip-Roaring Ripley,” who, with Rev. John Rankin helped make Ripley, Ohio, a pipeline for freedom seekers.

Here, again, Schulz provides readers a nugget: Ripley would have been a community far too small to support six cobblers had it not been an Underground Railroad town and had not the cobblers been subsidized by donations from anti-slavery societies that underwrote the Underground Railroad.

Readers will find these chapters and vignettes found throughout the book’s 158 pages enriching, inspiring and worth celebrating.

During a just concluded book tour, Schulz found that many Buckeyes already are celebrating the very stories that she recalls being obscured by “a choking fog” of prejudice that carried “whiffs of Jim Crow during her 1950s childhood.

While this is worth celebrating, my celebrations will be muted by one each of Schulz’s facts and vignettes.

The fact? “Estimates of the number of fugitive slaves who moved through the Underground Railroad are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 … in the six decades or so that the Underground Railroad operated. Even if we allow for a higher overall population count (of slaves) — say 8 million, the numbers suggest that no more than about 1% of Americans who were ever enslaved escaped by way of the Underground Railroad.”

I nearly pined for a higher percentage.

The vignette is the real-life of story Margaret Garner, whose tragedy Ohio author Toni Morrison famously fictionalized and re-imagined in her celebrated novel “Beloved.”

Garner, Schulz reminds us, “was a Kentucky woman who managed to reach Cincinnati with her husband and four children, all enslaved, in 1856. Unfortunately, slave catchers caught the group, and during the melee that followed, Margaret Garner killed her 2-year-old daughter with a kitchen knife rather than allow her to be taken back into slavery.”

It was her own abuse as a sexual breeding vessel for slavery that drove Garner to infanticide.

I am more than happy Kathy Schulz followed Morrison’s advice and took it upon herself to write wrote this book about Underground Railroad no one had written, for it is the very book I’ve needed.

But its content reminds us that 99% of the slaves did not escape on the Underground Railroad and leaves us to ponder Margaret Garner’s judgment that for her own 2-year-old daughter — and, presumably, uncounted others — life under slavery was too unbearable to endure.