The woman who walked across Ohio on the Underground Railroad is trying to save one of the last physical links to Cleveland's role in helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada before the Civil War. Joan Southgate organized an event last weekend to draw attention to the Cozad-Bates House in University Circle and its strong ties to the Underground Railroad. Next week members of the city's planning commission will vote to decide whether to give the house protected status. As ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports, it could be the first step toward celebrating a previously untold chapter of Cleveland's history.
"Closed carriages of Canadian bound slaves arrived frequently at the Ford farm. The fugitives were harbored on the farm and later driven at night to John Brown, a Negro barber, whose shop was on Seneca Street. Brown conducted them to a ship."
Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland (Washington and Cleveland: Association for the Study of Negro Life, Western Reserve Historical Society, 1972), 29.
If you've ever driven through University Circle, you've probably gone right by the Cozad-Bates House. Set back from the edge of Mayfield Road, just east of Euclid Avenue, this two-story red-brick Italianate house is the last remaining structure from pre-Civil War days in University Circle. Around the back is the original brick farmhouse Joan Southgate says was built in 1853 by Cleveland pioneer Andrew Cozad for his son, Justus.
Joan Southgate: Though I had known about that beautiful red-brick building - it's sort of almost in my neighborhood - I had no idea about its history.
Joan Southgate is now 77. Her 573-mile walk to Canada in the path of her slave ancestors along Ohio's Underground Railroad routes a few years ago drew national media attention. Now Joan has a new project. Two years ago, she founded Save Cleveland Hope, a grassroots group whose goal is to turn the Cozad-Bates House into an Underground Railroad education center. Last weekend she held an event to draw attention to the house at her church, Euclid Avenue Congregational led by Pastor Felix Carrion, just a dozen blocks away.
Felix Carrion: This church was started as a Sunday school by a Cozad in 1828. And we rejoice that Joan Southgate is indeed a member of our congregation.
Six years ago, the Cleveland Landmarks Commission did some research to dig up the history of the Cozad-Bates House, which had been nominated for local landmark status. Although the home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, only local protection could keep it from being demolished, altered or moved. At the Euclid Avenue Church last Saturday, Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Incorporated, told a spellbound audience of 150-people how that research shows many of University Circle's founding families were active in the Underground Railroad.
Chris Ronayne: For many fugitives the houses and barns on the farms in University Circle were the penultimate way stations on the journey to freedom in Canada.
The Cozads and the Fords, related by marriage, were just two of the pioneering families who settled the Ohio wilderness near Cleveland just east of Doan Brook in what is now the heart of University Circle. They built their farms along Buffalo Road, now called Euclid Avenue. Historical records show that no less than five families within a half-mile radius of the Cozad-Bates House served as conductors on the Underground Railroad.
Chris Ronayne: Closed carriages of Canadian-bound slaves arrived frequently at the Ford farm. The fugitives were harbored on the farm and later driven at night to John Brown, the black barber whose shop was on Seneca Street. Brown conducted them to a ship.
Seneca Street - now East Third - was the last American soil many Canadian-bound fugitives would see. Over the three decades preceding the Civil War, more than 40,000 fleeing slaves were led to safety in Canada by an estimated 1,500 Ohio Underground Railroad conductors both black and white. Beginning in 1850, it was a federal crime for anyone to assist a fugitive, even in free states like Ohio. Those who offered help faced stiff fines and imprisonment. Fugitives faced re-capture and a return to slavery. Along the Underground Railroad Cleveland's code name was Hope.
This is the story Joan Southgate and others want to tell at the Cozad-Bates House. And for Joan, the most important audience is children. In the basement crawl space of the Euclid Avenue church, a group of kids eagerly line up to reenact the night-time journey of escaping slaves. It's the kind of program Southgate and Restore Cleveland Hope would like to create, led here by storyteller Barbara Wilson.
Barbara Wilson: Come on children, it's time to get ready. So gather up your courage and hold onto your space, because we's getting' ready to go to a safe place.
But the Cozad-Bates House is owned by University Hospitals, which in 2000 objected to the house being designated as a local landmark, even though their expansion plans have never included the Mayfield Road site. The hospital has been silent about the reasons for its opposition to protecting the house. Ward 8 Councilman Kevin Conwell believes the hospital's latest plan for expansion pending before the planning board presents an opportunity for action.
Kevin Conwell: What it does, it gives us some leverage. They need zoning and they need a lot of variances. What we need is the Cozad-Bates House to be saved. And I'm going to officially designate it as a Cleveland landmark on April 7th at 9:00 AM.
Bob Brown, chairman of the planning commission, says there's no guarantee they'll approve the designation. But both he and Chris Ronayne agree there are signs of hope that the house can be saved for future generations.
Chris Ronayne: We are a town that spends a lot of our attention looking at our history, but this is one chapter of our history I think we would all agree we should illuminate.
A spokesperson for University Hospitals says they'll adhere to whatever decision the commission makes. And that makes Joan Southgate and Restore Cleveland Hope hopeful that the Cozad-Bates House can indeed become the future gateway to an untold story from Cleveland's past. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.