Road Trip series
New Ohio Guide: Paths to Freedom – The Underground Railroad in Ohio
Ripley may seem like just another sleepy town on the Ohio River, but there was a time when it was a filled with secrets and controversies. In the days of slavery, this was part of the Borderlands that slaves crossed in order to make their way north to freedom in Canada. Ohio was always free, but slavery flourished just across the river in Kentucky.
"It was 1200 feet across. I mean, just imagine that, 1200 feet between a slave state and a free state," says Ann Hagedorn, author of Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. She lives in the home of former abolitionists, Thomas and Kitty McCague, on Front Street in Ripley.
Conductors on Front Street worked to provide safe passage to runaway slaves. John Parker called these people the “midnight marauders.” He knew firsthand of the difficulties they faced, working as a conductor for 20 years from his home on Front Street.
"John Parker was a victim of the internal slave trade. He was sold out of Virginia to a slave pen in Norfolk Virginia. He walked from Norfolk all the way to Montgomery, Alabama as a 7-year-old child. In his early 20’s he bought his freedom and came to Cincinnati," says Carl Westmoreland, Senior Advisor at the Freedom Center in Cincinnati.
Parker was working as an iron molder in Cincinnati, when he became friends with a barber.
"And the barber convinced him to go up river with him to help a black family get out of slavery in Kentucky," says Westmoreland.
A short time later Parker moved to Ripley, where he opened his own foundry.
"Parker patented three implements that still have patent coverage," says Westmoreland.
But he had a different occupation at night.
"Becoming the sixth wealthiest person in Ripley Ohio, at night, he would go across the river and personally row black people to the other side and start them on their way to freedom. Can you imagine buying your way out of slavery and every time you go across the Ohio River you’re not only risking death, but you’re risking everything," says Westmoreland.
Ann Hagedorn tells the story of an incident involving Parker and a runaway slave that reportedly happened in the entryway of her Front Street home.
"John Parker was on the landing with a slave catcher who had come into the front door apparently and they were having a fight on the landing. And, Parker/ pulled a gun on the guy and said, you know, I haven’t shot a slave catcher yet today/ and the guy raced out of the house," says Hagerdon.
Stories like these ooze out of the houses on Ripley’s Front Street.
"It’s such an amazing experience to live in a town with a history like this cause every time you start to get cynical about the world you remember that these people for 40 to 50 years stood up for something they believed in and it finally happened," says Hagerdon.
Download an audio tour of Rt. 52 and explore it on your own. Just visit SeeOhioFirst.org and click on The New Ohio Guide. The New Ohio Guide is produced by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.