Saturday, November 29, 1997
Retracing escaped slaves' Ky. paths
Group documents 'Railroad' sites

BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

At the end of Covington's Main Street, Margaret Garner became a free woman.

It was a snowy night in January 1856 when Ms. Garner and 16 other slaves fled across the frozen Ohio River into a free state. The group passed through MainStrasse Village; a historical marker tells of their escape.

Ms. Garner eventually killed her baby daughter rather than see her returned to slavery; her tragic story was the basis for the best-selling novel Beloved by Toni Morrison.

The exact route Ms. Garner followed from a Boone County plantation remains a mystery. Did she hide in churches or homes? Was this a track along the Underground Railroad, complete with abolitionist conductors?

Volunteers working to document Northern Kentucky's role in the Underground Railroad hope a statewide symposium next week provides some answers to how Ms. Garner got from Kentucky to Ohio.

The Kentucky Underground Symposium, set for Thursday in Frankfort, is an effort to look at existing research about abolitionists, escaped slaves, the actions of state and local politicians and analysis of escape corridors.

The event also kicks off a five-year project to document the state's part in the abolitionist movement.

It's a welcome event to those on the Northern Kentucky African American Heritage Task Force. These volunteers have been working with the National Park Service for more than a year to research and authenticate stories and paperwork about homes, churches and tunnels in the area. The group has identified 19 sites it believes were part of the Underground Railroad.

In May, task force director Mary Northington said the group needed resources to pursue leads.

''If we can substantiate that this is a strong area of Underground Railroad activity, the park service will help us document and preserve them,'' she said.

In August, after the Enquirer reported on the group's efforts to study Northern Kentucky Underground Railroad sites, the task force got word of five additional spots in Covington, Ludlow, Newport and Boone County.

The Kentucky Heritage Council - one of the symposium's sponsors - hopes the research project will get residents from across the state to share information they might have about sites and people.

''Kentucky played a role in the national effort,'' symposium coordinator Alicestyne Adams said. ''We hope to encourage citizens, students and historians to help us document activities through their own research and help us develop other sources of information that may be out there.''

Ms. Garner's story is an example of how Kentucky has ignored its abolitionist past. There is plenty of information about Ms. Garner's life in Ohio, but not much is known about her life in Kentucky. Under fugitive slave laws, Ms. Garner was arrested in Ohio.

Her capture received national attention because of issues of state and federal authority. Fugitive slave law supporters wanted Ms. Garner returned to her master. She wanted to stay in Ohio. In the end, Ms. Garner was returned to Kentucky. Her master promised to return her to Ohio for trial, but she was sent farther south and never heard from again.

The Northern Kentucky task force is playing a vital role in getting the state to research and preserve its abolitionist history. It was task force members who got Kentucky officials to meet with Ed Rigaud, executive director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, planned to open in Cincinnati in 2002.

The purpose: to discuss the involvement of Kentucky in the center's development and to encourage Kentucky leaders to support broad-based participation in the discovery and development of Underground Railroad history.

The Kentucky African American Heritage Commission is also committing money to further research. Commissioner Ed Holmes said documenting the Underground Railroad will be ''a significant, ongoing effort.''

State and local agencies also are working to create a guide to the Underground Railroad routes slaves followed through the commonwealth. One created for Ohio shows at least 18 trails leading into Kentucky. Those escaping to freedom might have stopped at one of the places the task force wants to study. They include:

  • The tower of the Mother of God Church on West Sixth Street, homes on Riverside Drive, the Weisnall House on Highland Avenue, the house at the corner of 18th and Maryland; and the home at 310 Garrard St., believed to have an underground tunnel.

  • The Carneal House on Second Street in Covington. A tunnel there leads toward the river.

  • A tunnel discovered during construction of the Panorama Apartments on Fourth Street.

  • In Ludlow, Elmwood Hall, on Forrest Avenue, recognized by the National Park Service for tunnels and hiding spaces used by fleeing slaves. A second home at 416 Closson Court is just two streets away from Elmwood Hall. Tunnels may have connected both.

  • In Fort Wright, the home at the corner of Kyles Lane and Dixie Highway.

  • In Newport, the home at 232 E. Third St., believed to have tunnels underneath that were part of a network of tunnels between Gen. James Taylor's home and a Third Street church.

  • A home on U.S. 42 between Longbranch and the city of Union thought to be the former home of slave owners. A former black Baptist church in Boone County, no longer used for services.

Other stations may have been operated at the Dinsmore Homestead in Burlington; the General James Taylor Mansion on the line between Bellevue and Newport; at White Hall in Bracken County; at riverside home and the St. Paul Methodist Church in August; and at Feebrook Farm in Brookville.

Northern Kentucky Task Force members ask that anyone with information about these or any structures or the people who lived there or owned them, share what they know. Call 431-5502.

Thursday's symposium is open to anyone. For information, contact Lisa Gross at (502) 564-3421.