Thursday, May 19, 2005 at 10:06 AM
Three years ago a grandmother from Cleveland, Ohio embarked on a remarkable journey to raise awareness of racial issues. Joan Southgate walked 519 miles along the route of the Underground Railroad from the little town of Ripley on the Ohio River all the way to Canada. Walking in the footsteps of runaway slaves, Joan touched the lives of many adults and children along the way. Since then she's written a book about her experience. Now she's retracing her journey across Ohio for a television documentary. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
At this elementary school in the rural hills midway between Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, the first taping of the day is just getting underway. 76-year-old Joan Southgate is not much taller than the dozens of children who sit cross-legged on the floor at her feet. But her raspy voice holds them spell bound as she relates the story of her trek across the state. She compares her journey to that of the escaping slaves whose path she followed.
Joan Southgate's walk ended three years ago. But the retired social worker and grandmother of nine has returned - this time by car - to the small farming town of Mount Vernon, Ohio. A TV station from her native Cleveland is taping Joan's school visits and tours of Underground Railroad sites for a new documentary about her 519-mile walk.
In May of that year this reporter joined Joan and her grandson Jeremy as she arrived in Oberlin nearly two months into her journey.
Joan Southgate: All along the way from early on those first few weeks in 2002, it was the children who would surprise you again and again and again.
It was a child who first brought Joan to Mt. Vernon three years ago. This was once an alternate route on Ohio's Underground Railroad and the site of Klan activity until the 1950's. Debbe Strouse teaches history and language arts at Mt. Vernon Middle School.
Debbe Strouse: Andy McGough was one of my students and I have always been in charge of History Day. And Andy was very much interested in the topic of slavery. So he was developing this project and it was done quite well, but I knew he needed some more primary resources. So I just happened to see an article in our local newspaper that talked about Joan Southgate.
Joan Southgate: Thirteen years old, shy when I met him, not very talkative. Here's this white family in Mt. Vernon that doesn't have a lot of black people in it. So his mom says, where will we find a slave descendent?
Andy McGough and his mother Patty Jamieson caught up with Joan on her walk.
Patty Jamieson: I took my other two children out of school and I took my mother and we made a day of it. I almost hated to leave that day. It was like meeting friends that you just didn't want to part with. And then she called and said she'd like to come to Mt. Vernon on her walk.
Andy, now 16, recalls the day he and his history team welcomed Joan to their school, then accompanied her to the town hall for a proclamation by the mayor.
Andy McGough: Walking down Main Street in the rain. And my whole entire team behind me and there's probably 150 of us. And all my teachers and everybody packing into that little room. And Mayor Mavis said, man, I wish we could have this many people here all the time. This town would be a lot better off.
Joan's visit changed Andy's life, but it also touched the lives of many others in Mt. Vernon. Linette Porter, the reporter who wrote the story that alerted Andy's teacher to Joan's walk, has since given up her job to work full-time documenting the racial history of the area.
Linette Porter: We have some history that people like, well, I don't know if we want to go there, I don't know that we want to discuss this. Well, what happened is we started discussing it and when you turn on the light, the dark's not so scary.
Joan Southgate: I want everyone - black and white - to swell with pride when you say American slave. I want everyone to claim those people as founding fathers.
Joan Southgate says she'll come back here to see how the dialogue she began three years go with her now-famous walk evolves. In Mt. Vernon, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.