Underground Railroad stops in Ohio get fresh flags

KEN GORDON The Columbus Dispatch Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Emotions wash over Drew Berry every time he ascends to the third-floor bell tower of the Christian Heyl House on Sunbury Road.

Built in 1857, the home served as a stop on the Underground Railroad -- a haven for fugitive slaves trying to avoid bounty hunters and reach freedom in Canada.

"I look out the window and think, 'This is the same view that people were looking (for runaways to arrive) outside,'" said Berry, an administrator at what is now the Ark House, a residential-care facility for adults with disabilities.

"It's such an honor for me every day to walk in the same steps and look out the same windows and feel the hope and all the emotions that go along with that."

Berry's feelings were echoed recently by others who live or work in former Underground Railroad stations in the Columbus area -- houses now marked by commemorative red flags.

First put in place a dozen years ago, the small markers for this and other houses have become tattered and torn and are being replaced.

As Columbus celebrates its bicentennial this year, the city's role in aiding escaped slaves remains an important piece of its history. At least 25 documented Underground Railroad stations survive in the Columbus area -- most of them privately owned.

Three stops are operated as museums: the Kelton House in Columbus, the Hanby House in Westerville and the Livingston House in Reynoldsburg.

In 1997, Cathy Nelson, a retired Columbus teacher, founded the Friends of Freedom Society, a volunteer group that researches and publicizes the heritage of Ohio's Underground Railroad.

Of the estimated 100,000 slaves who escaped to freedom through the Underground Railroad -- most between 1830 and 1860 -- about 40,000 are thought to have passed through Ohio.

In 2000, Nelson's group distributed flags -- about 12 inches by 18 inches -- that residents of former stations could display in their windows.

Recently, Nelson was making the rounds again, part of an ongoing effort to replace lost or faded flags or to deliver them to those who never had one.

The first Ark House flag had become too shredded to display.

"For our organization, it has been (about) the friendships that we've made with people who live in these homes," Nelson said. "We help them understand more of their history."

Adrian and Anne Bennett appreciate the history of their house, also on Sunbury Road. Known as the Margaret Agler House, it was built in 1841 and was a well-known station along the route that moved runaways north into Delaware County.

Adrian is of West Indian descent, so his ancestors might have been slaves. Anne is a descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist whose book Uncle Tom's Cabin created a firestorm when it was published in 1852.

On display in their house is a quote from Stowe: "Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn."

The Bennetts had eyed the house longingly for years, snapping it up in 2002 when it hit the market.

"It kind of feels like we were supposed to be here," Mrs. Bennett said.

The home includes a basement tunnel that has collapsed but likely led to nearby Alum Creek.

The couple's house also has a hidden crawl space -- large enough to hold perhaps three people -- off an upstairs bathroom.

Although tunnels and hidden rooms fit the romantic notion of the Underground Railroad, most stations had no such features.

"Most people did not build their house to accommodate that part of their lives," said Georgeanne Reuter, director of the Kelton House. "People usually hid runaways in barns or basements or attics."

Such was the case at yet another Sunbury Road stop, known as the Timothy Lee Mansion. Lee probably hid runaways in his outbuildings.

Diane Brown and her husband, Steve Duff, own the house. Nelson gave them their first flag last week.

Not everyone has welcomed the flags, though.

At a home on Africa Road in Westerville, a family member objected that designating his home as historic could lead to unwanted publicity. Eventually, though, he accepted it.

Some homes -- such as the Lee mansion, with its pillars and porticos -- stand out as old and grand.

But, more often, the former stations now are simply well-kept homes tucked discreetly into older neighborhoods, such as the Ansel Mattoon House on North Street in Worthington or the David Graham House on French Street in Reynoldsburg.

The red flags are the only clue that something notable happened there.

"It's a good little sign now to let people know that they still live in and around history," Nelson said, "and this history is important."


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com