Monday, August 14, 2000

Underground railroad stopped here

College Hill house seeks official recognition of role on freedom road

        It is a mystery never fully solved, how slaves from so many different localities could surmount so many perils and difficulties, through swamps, and forests, especially through thickly settled districts. The Polar Star was their guide during the night and natural instinct when traveling during the day, yet they would meet (at) certain named points and be taken on together.

        — From a letter by Harriet N. Wilson of College Hill, April 14, 1892.

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John O'Neil was just 9 years old, but he remembers an afternoon in 1926 when three elderly African-Americans stood on the sidewalk outside his College Hill home.

        The men asked if they could come inside. Young John ran to his mother, who invited them into the two-story house.

        “This is the way (one) man came in,” says Mr. O'Neil, a former Cincinnati police officer and engineering clerk who is 83 now with thick gray hair combed to the side. He's standing in a kitchen doorway of the house he's lived in his entire life.

        “He walked in here, and pointed right over there,” to a door that led to the cellar. “He said, "That's the way we used to go down.' ”

        The old men wanted to see, one more time, the place they once took refuge as runaway slaves. They had been passengers on the Underground Railroad, the informal network of abolitionists, free blacks and others who helped fugitive slaves find freedom in Canada.

        As a boy, Mr. O'Neil says, he didn't concern himself much about that visit by former slaves, or another that occurred shortly thereafter. “Now that I'm older, I realize it was very significant.”

        Mary Ann Olding does, too. She is an architectural historian, a professor of writing and research at the Union Institute, and a consultant for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

        She has included the recollections of Mr. O'Neil and his sister in a 50-page document nominating the house at 1502 Aster Place for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board approved the nomination in June, and recommended it be forwarded to the National Park Service for final review.

        Mr. O'Neil's home is known as the Wilson House, for the abolitionist family who built it in 1849 and resided there until 1920. Word on whether the house will be listed in the National Register should come this fall.

        Efforts to have the house so designated in the 1980s were unsuccessful.

        “We didn't have near as much information on the Underground Railroad at that time,” says Stephen Gordon, national register manager for the Ohio Historic Preservation Office.

        “There's much more interest and attention now being given to Underground Railroad sites in Ohio. So I think the timing is right. I feel guardedly optimistic for this particular property.”

        One reason for that optimism is Ms. Olding's extensive written nomination. She focused not just on the house and its abolitionist residents, but also described the historical context in which they operated. She connected Underground Railroad activity in College Hill to the surrounding region, and she noted the significant roles of black families, women, Presbyterians and Quakers.

        Her research centers on the family of Samuel and Sally Wilson, who arrived in Ohio from New Hampshire in 1828. They lived with their seven children in an early settlement six miles east of Cincinnati called Columbia, then moved to Reading.

        “Only after Samuel and four of the older children became Presbyterian in 1840 did the family speak out against slavery,” Ms. Olding writes. “Criticized in Reading for their abolitionist views, they looked for a new place to live.”

        The Wilsons moved to College Hill in 1849 and built their home on four acres on Hamilton Road. (The land has since been subdivided, and the house's address is now Aster Place.)

        The Wilson family's role in the Underground Railroad is documented in a letter the youngest sister, Harriet Nesmith Wilson, wrote on April 14, 1892, to Ohio State University professor Wilbur Siebert. He used the information in a book, Mysteries of Ohio's Underground Railroads.

        But historians view such information — written so long after the fact — with caution. Ms. Olding therefore knew it was important to put the house in historical context.

        In Hamilton County, College Hill was the second-most important community on the Underground Railroad, after Walnut Hills, she says.

        As home of the Ohio Female College and the Farmers College of Hamilton County, College Hill drew educators and progressive-minded people opposed to slavery, many of them Presbyterian. And the village was situated on Hamilton Road, which led to runaway slave-friendly Quaker communities in Indiana.

        Runaway slaves would cross the Ohio River, follow the Mill Creek into Cumminsville, then come to a fork in the road, with Colerain Pike to the left, Hamilton Road to the right. Fugitives followed Hamilton Road into College Hill, often trekking in ravines on either side of the escape route.

        In her letter to Professor Siebert, Harriet Wilson wrote:

        A few colored families, living in small families in the sequestered places, were stopping places until the benevolent people of the hill could be secretly notified, "that more people had come, and that help was needed.'

        Among those benevolent people were the Wilsons. Their home was a station on the Underground Railroad until at least 1852, Ms. Olding says. Samuel and Sally, three adult Wilson children (including Harriet), and an aunt lived in the house during that time.

        Harriet wrote of one instance in which a search party was believed headed for College Hill. Fugitives were quickly scattered among several families.

        The women being "entertained' by our family were terribly frightened declaring "that they would rather die than be taken and carried back.' Though quite large in size they were ready and willing to crawl through a small aperture into a dark cellar where they would be safe.

        The search party, Harriet wrote, turned back.

        The Fugitive Slave Act, enacted by Congress in 1850, made helping runaway slaves a crime punishable by imprisonment and fine. It slowed Underground Railroad activity in College Hill.

        Wrote Harriet:

        ... it was deemed wiser to have it carried on by other less exposed routes so in the years preceding the civil war there were comparatively none coming to the Hill, yet those interested in the cause of human rights did their part financially to help ...

        Harriet Wilson outlived her parents and six siblings. She lived in the family home 71 years until her death at age 95 in 1920. Mr. O'Neil's family bought the property in 1926.

        John O'Neil has now resided in the house longer than the Wilsons. He knows their story well, and admires them for their dedication to a worthy cause.

        He believes the National Register designation is fitting. “Here's this house,” he says, “and all the history in it.”

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