Wednesday, July 31, 2002

They stood upon freedom, looked back at slavery


Underground Railroad: From evil to good

By Tom O'Neill, toneill@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        RIPLEY — Joseph Grier, born into slavery in 1850 in South Carolina, never stood on a hill overlooking the Ohio River from the side of freedom.

[photo] Guy Washington, regional coordinator with the National Park Service, contemplates the Ohio River during a tour of the John Rankin House Tuesday.
(Patrick Reddy photos)
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        His world was smaller. He stayed south and, at age 65, had his 11th and final child, Barnett.

        On Tuesday, that son, 87-year-old retired physicist Barnett Grier, stood on a hill at the Rankin House on the Underground Railroad and couldn't overlook its meaning.

        “I was just completely awestruck,” said Mr. Grier, one of 45 Southern California educators on an eight-day tour of historic sites on the Underground Railroad.

        Like most of the safe havens for slaves seeking freedom north of the Ohio River, the Rankin House in Ripley was white-owned.

        “Standing on freedom, looking out at slavery,” said Dr. Grier of Riverside, Calif., who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Standards and taught college physics. “The river divided good and evil.”

        The trip began Monday at the Carneal House in Covington and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati.

        Tuesday's tour included visits to the Rankin and John Parker houses in this Brown County river town, then Springboro and Dayton.

[photo] Dr. Barnett Grier tours the Rankin house.
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        The Footsteps to Freedom group includes educators both active and retired, black and white. They've begun to record their impressions on a Web site.

        With the high Kentucky hills and the river flowing behind her, Betty Campbell of Ripley Heritage told the story of the abolitionist, the Rev. John Rankin, a longtime Kentuckian who migrated with his wife and children to Ohio. Most of the 2,000 escaped slaves who traveled through Ripley stayed with the Rankins, whose home high on Liberty Hill was a beacon.

        “Oh, it's startling almost,” John King, a white fifth-grade teacher from Rialto, Calif., said of the river. “I'm trying to picture it in my mind, so I can relate it back to the kids.”

        For him, the challenge was in turning complex and distant histories into something tangible for today's 11-year-olds.

        “The concept of humans as merchandise is sobering,” he said. “Their resolve strikes me.”

        The fifth annual trip today takes the group to Wilberforce University and Oberlin College, then north to Cleveland and Sandusky, into Canada, and back to Columbus through Detroit.

        “It's been a learning experience, hands-on for American history,” said Dr. Leona Williams, an African-American who is a retired school superintendent from Riverside, Calif. “Not just African-American history. American history. Our part of it. This place was a beacon, literally and figuratively.”

[photo] Runaway slaves had to climb these stone steps to reach the Rankin house.
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        The tour is coordinated by Cheryl Brown, owner of the Riverside-based Black Voice News. Her daughter, Paulette Brown-Hinds, taught African studies and English for two years at the University of Cincinnati.

        Last year, Ms. Brown found a 1915 U.S. Census record in the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County that unlocked the mystery of her family roots.

        And of Grandpa Sonny's journey from the red clay of Georgia to the muddy river of Cincinnati.

        “It changed my mother and her brother in so many ways,” she said as the tour bus pulled up to the Parker House in Ripley.

        She went with the group for a short walk along the Ohio.

        Mr. Grier stayed behind and told a story.

        His father, born a slave in Summerville, S.C., near Charleston, gained freedom at age 15 in 1865. But like many slaves, he was unaware the Emancipation Proclamation had been drawn up two years earlier.

        His grandfather, a Cherokee Indian, was lynched by a group of white men when he refused to sell his 100-acre farm.

        Mr. Grier is now the family's last survivor.

        His older sister, Violet, died six months ago at age 103. Mr. Grier, raised in Charlotte, N.C., said he's half African-American, one-quarter Cherokee Indian and one-quarter German Jew.

        His father's last name actually was spelled Greer. The family changed it to Grier, which was considered a “white” spelling then.

        His stories wander through rich detail, but never stray far from a question he's been asking for most of his 87 years.

        “You tell me,” he said, leaning forward, “what the hell does color have to do with anything?”

       

       



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