See a message from Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston about the Northfield to Selma trip.

Friday, March 2017: Day Two

Saturday, March 18, 2017

by Jimmy Donelson III

Today we made our first stop on our trip to Selma at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) in Cincinnati, Ohio. As one of the first post-American Revolution boomtowns, Cincinnati became the largest non-coastal town in the U.S. and a significant site of commerce and tourism. A lesser-known fact is the city’s prominent role in the fight for abolitionism. Historian Wilbur Siebert believes approximately three thousand miles of Underground Railroad trails existed in Ohio, with many beginning in and around Cincinnati. Residents worked together to provide refuge for freedman and fugitive slaves when there was no certainty that slavery would end. During our tour of NURFC we learned about the involvement of the Cincinnati area riverside village of Ripley which served as the most heavily-trafficked border crossing from Kentucky—a slave state. The partnership of two abolitionists in town was most captivating.

During the early 1840s, John Rankin (a White, Presbyterian minister from Tennessee) and Levi Coffin (a former slave from Kentucky) moved to Ripley, becoming neighbors and heavily involved in the town’s abolition efforts. Rankin served as a conductor and, with the help of his sons, opened his home to fugitive slaves looking for shelter and food. After some time he began collaborating with Parker who would travel at night by boat to Kentucky—guiding fugitive slaves crossing the Ohio River. In order to minimize any risks, Rankin built a home atop a hill three hundred-foot high that overlooked the river signaling to Coffin with a lantern when it was safe to cross. Of course reaching Ripley by no means meant that fugitive slaves were out of danger, but the village became a beacon of hope for those escaping from their masters. Some took their chances and settled in other parts of Ohio but most continued on their journey to Canada where slave catchers had no jurisdiction. The residents of Ripley became prominent across the U.S. for risking their lives to assist more than 3000 fugitive slaves through the village on their road to freedom.

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