In the years before the Civil War, runaway slaves seeking freedom in Canada were often assisted on their journey by a secret network known as the Underground Railroad. While people in many states participated in this network, nowhere is the history of that effort better known - or documented - than in Ohio. 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report.
SCHAEFER- On January 5, 1826 David Hudson, Jr. - the son of Hudson's founder - wrote in his diary: 'Two men came this evening in a sleigh, bringing a Negro woman, a runaway slave, and her two children.' That event is the earliest documented involvement of Hudson citizens in the Underground Railroad. But Hudson's most famous native son was also one of the nation's most controversial Abolitionists - John Brown, who led the abortive raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859.
CACCAMO- And this is also the place where, after the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, John Brown gave that oath to fight slavery - he did it at the church that once stood here.
SCHAEFER- On Memorial Day Weekend, residents of Hudson gathered to commemorate the efforts of these and other anti-slavery activists with the dedication of an historical marker on the town square. James Caccamo is the Hudson Public Library archivist and the town's leading authority on the Underground Railroad.
CACCAMO- From what we understand, people just brought the runaway slaves into their homes. We know John Brown did that...because his son remembers getting shoved over in bed one night and had a slave shoved into bed with him...Also, his brother's house is a little bit down the road and that's where the Harper's Ferry guns were stored.
SCHAEFER- In all, Hudson boasts 21 documented sites connected to the Underground Railroad. These include Western Reserve College - later Case Western Reserve University - and the Free Congregational Church started by John Brown's father, Owen, when church leaders refused to allow runaway slaves to share the Brown family pew. But not everyone here joined the Abolitionist cause.
CACCAMO- We're standing in front of the house of the guy who didn't participate. This is Judge Van R. Humphrey, who was a Summit County common pleas judge and was a Copperhead. And he supported the South throughout the Civil War - and the ironic thing is, his house is right next to the Brown-Strong House.
SCHAEFER- Assistant archivist Gwen Mayer believes Hudson's conflict over the issue of slavery was typical of the era.
MAYER- I think it was something that people had such deep feelings about. They were either very for or very against, I don't think there were too many people that were in the middle of the road on this issue...And I feel all the more honored that this community celebrates its history, whether it's good, bad or indifferent.
SCHAEFER- Even within the Brown family itself, there were divisions that have lingered to the present day. Margaret Clark Morgan is the great, great granddaughter of Owen Brown. While she's pleased her family's accomplishments are being honored she recalls the controversy at Brown family reunions.
MORGAN- Some of us don't admire John Brown as much... My father was one who didn't admire him, because he had this large family and he was constantly moving and he had a lot of debts.
SCHAEFER- Documenting this complex and often conflicting history has been the job of Caccamo and others involved with the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, a grassroots organization that preserves Ohio's Underground Railroad sites. Cathy Nelson is the association's president.
NELSON- Our Ohio Underground Railroad Association, under the Friends of Freedom Society, really has been designated as a model in the country for our Underground Railroad preservation initiative, our education, our markers, our research.
SCHAEFER- This year the Association - with a grant from the Ohio Arts Council - will place one hundred historical marker flags at some of the more than six hundred sites documented around the state so far. Ohio's extraordinary efforts to preserve this heritage have also been recognized by the White House. Cathy Nelson was recently named executive director of the National Underground Railroad Millennium Trail, an initiative of the National Park Service that will join other famous routes - like the Appalachian Trail - in depicting the nation's past.
NELSON- We have a lot to learn from those people one hundred and fifty years ago...Look at the audience today. Almost standing room only to hear me speak. And the people were, the majority were, you know, mostly white...It is our job now to pass this story on.
SCHAEFER- But the story is still unfolding. New sites in Ohio are being discovered all the time and in states like New York, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois - even Kentucky and Virginia - people are now organizing their own heritage trails. This September, the National Underground Railroad Millennium Trail will itself be dedicated at the town of Gallipolis on the banks of the Ohio River, where for the last one hundred thirty-five years, residents have celebrated the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In Hudson, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.