From Kentucky, a cautious observer can squint past the banks of the Ohio River and spot the village of Ripley, Ohio, and a lone home on the hill above.
Nearly 200 years in the past, those traveling on the Underground Railroad would look to that village, that hill and the sunshine from the lantern that the Rev. John Rankin hung in his entrance window, beckoning them throughout. It was a beacon of hope for a world with out the perils of slavery.
Ripley, settled in 1804 — only a 12 months after Ohio was granted statehood — was one of the state’s most-active stations on the Underground Railroad. Its location alongside the river, proximity to close by free Black settlements and the quantity of abolitionists residing on the town made it a main location for freedom seekers to cross, in line with historians.
Ripley’s conductors have been so adept that annoyed Kentucky slave homeowners, in line with creator and historian Henrietta Buckmaster, who usually mentioned these journeying north through Ripley “must have disappeared on an underground road.”
Experts estimate that Ohio had about 3,000 miles of routes, nearly all of which crossed the Ohio River.
Ripley, nevertheless, stands out: It was a spot the place each Black and white residents labored collectively as abolitionists, transferring those that made it throughout the river out of hazard’s method.
Rankin, an early Ohio abolitionist, Presbyterian minister and architect of Ripley’s Underground Railroad, constructed his residence in 1828. It grew to become one of the primary stops alongside the community of conductors, the place historians estimate that Rankin, his spouse, Jean, and their 13 youngsters personally assisted greater than 2,000 enslaved folks on their path to freedom.
From his perch, Rankin might maintain an eye fixed out for these crossing the river at evening, maintain look ahead to his fellow conductors and scour the city for any signal of slave catchers.
At the pulpit, Rankin exalted that “Certain Death is the penalty which the Almighty has attached to the crime of depriving an innocent person of his liberty.”
Today, greater than 150 years after Union troopers instructed the final enslaved folks residing in Texas that the Emancipation Proclamation had set them free, some descendants of these freedom seekers and abolitionists nonetheless reside within the Ohio River Valley.
In a collection of interviews over 4 days in April and May, the Dispatch, which like USA TODAY is a component of the USA TODAY Network, spoke with seven descendants of these who made the journey alongside the Underground Railroad from slavery to Ripley and people who helped mild the way in which.
Their tales illuminate how the previous and current are so intimately tied, and the way these ancestors’ legacies reside on through their descendants immediately.
The Rev. James Settles (b. 1950)
Great-great grandson of Joseph Settles
Joseph Settles was an enslaved individual residing in Mays Lick, Kentucky, within the 1860s, working as a carriage driver for his enslaver, a circuit court docket decide. As a driver, he made contacts who helped him organize his escape to freedom.
Joseph fled throughout the Ohio River in 1863 along with his spouse, brother-in-law and toddler daughter. Once the household settled in Ripley, Joseph made preparations with different conductors to soak up his mates. Joseph returned to Kentucky 4 days later to assist eight different folks from his enslaver’s farm throughout the river.
He spent a lot of the remainder of his life serving to others like him make their method north. He additionally served within the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry within the Civil War. Joseph helped construct Ripley’s Beebe Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
James, the great-great-grandson of Joseph Settles, served as pastor for twenty-four years till his retirement in September 2020.
The following is a recording from the descendant of a freedom seeker and/or abolitionist who made the journey through, or assisted people alongside, the Underground Railroad, from slavery to liberation in Ripley, Ohio.
Amber Dudley (b. 1974)
Great-great granddaughter of Lindsey Jackson and great-great grandniece of Polly Jackson
Siblings Lindsey and Polly Jackson were born in Virginia and came to Ohio with their family in the mid-1840s as free Black abolitionists. The Jacksons, especially Polly, became key figures in Ripley’s Underground Railroad network. Lindsey worked for Rankin as a farmhand and joined his inner circle of conductors assisting folks across the Ohio River.
Polly, Lindsey’s oldest sister, was also a conductor. She settled near Ripley and kept a small farm where she hosted freedom seekers in her house and helped direct them on their way if they chose to continue their journey. Polly was known to carry a butcher knife in her apron and keep a kettle of hot water on the stove to fend off slave catchers who came to town.
Amber was born in Ripley, then moved to Columbus to attend college and start her family before moving back to Ripley.
Beth Robinson (b. 1963)
Great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Nathaniel Collins
Nathaniel Collins and his family were conductors on Ripley’s Underground Railroad network. The Collins family lived in a home along Ripley’s Front Street, which sits along the Ohio River, just down the street from fellow abolitionist Dr. Alexander Campbell. Nathaniel was a carpenter by trade, specializing in coffins and cabinets. The family would often hide freedom seekers in the coffins they made to transport them from one stop to another.
Nathaniel had at least 10 children, all of whom were actively involved on the Underground Railroad. His sons –– Theodore, Thomas and James –– took up Nathaniel’s abolitionist work after his death in 1831. His five daughters were also active members of Ripley’s Anti-Slavery Society. Nathaniel was also the first mayor of Ripley and a founding member of the village’s Presbyterian Church.
Beth, who now lives in Cincinnati, grew up visiting Ripley as a child. She hopes to one day buy Nathaniel’s original home along Front Street.
Robert Campbell (b. 1942)
Great-great-great grandson of Dr. Alexander Campbell
Alexander Campbell, thought-about Ohio’s first abolitionist, was a doctor who migrated to Ripley from Kentucky in 1804. He was additionally one of the state’s first senators, a postmaster, a mayor and an area enterprise proprietor.
Alexander constructed properties alongside Ripley’s Front Street to assist transfer and conceal freedom seekers. His work predated that of John Rankin and John Parker, who made Ripley a key stopping level on the Underground Railroad.
He aided each Rankin and Parker in their abolitionist work and acted as one thing of a guide, given his historical past and deep ties to anti-slavery societies within the space. Alexander died in 1857, three years earlier than the Civil War started.
Robert lives on his household’s farm simply outdoors of Ripley along with his spouse, Betty, an area historian who operates the John Rankin House historic website.
Peggy Mills Warner (b. 1947)
Great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Betty Toler
Betty Toler was a founder of the Gist Settlement, a community of freed Blacks north of Ripley that began in 1819. After the death of Virginia plantation owner Samuel Gist, the enslaved people on his land were freed in his will. The sale of Gist’s land in Virginia purchased about 2,000 acres of land in Ohio’s Adams, Brown and Highland counties, where these settlements existed into the mid-20th century.
A free Black settlement was a refuge for those running for freedom. They could use the community as a hideout from enslavers and slave catchers. The Brown County Gist settlements were the largest free Black communities in the region, which greatly increased Underground Railroad traffic through Ripley. Residents of these communities sacrificed their own comfort and safety so that other enslaved people might share their same fate.
Peggy lived in her family’s home on the Eagle Township Gist Settlement until early 2020. She sold the house but kept the surrounding lands to one day pass down to her grandchildren. Peggy lives in nearby Mason, Ohio.
Randy Sroufe (b. 1960)
Great-grandson of Louis Portio Sroufe
Louis Portio Sroufe’s journey to freedom is misplaced partly to historical past. There are two doable tales about how Louis, who was only a child when he left Kentucky, discovered freedom in Ripley.
The first story, recorded in “His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad,” tells that Ripley abolitionist John Parker helping Louis’ parents planned an escape across the Ohio River to freedom. Sebastian Sroufe, their enslaver, was suspicious that the family may make a run for Ripley, so he kept young Louis in his bedroom that night. An undeterred Parker took Louis from the bedroom and the family made it safely to Ripley.
The other story is that Louis’ parents had made it to Ripley without him and they went to Parker to ask him to go back to the Sroufe farm to get their baby. Beyond Parker’s account of the Sroufe family, there are few records that can confirm that Louis was truly the baby rescued from Sebastian Sroufe’s bedroom that night.
On his Social Security application, Louis Sroufe’s mother was listed as Celia Brooks and his father was listed as James K. Sroufe, Sebastian’s son. Celia’s husband was not Louis’ biological father and his name is unknown. Census records show that Louis was born in Dover, Kentucky, on Feb. 3, 1864. Louis died in 1951 and is buried in Ripley.
Randy was born and grew up in Ripley, then moved to Cincinnati, where he raised his family.
Marietha Bosley (b. 1980)
Great-great-great-granddaughter of Arnold Gragston
Arnold Gragston was an enslaved man living on the Jack Tabb plantation in Mason County, Kentucky. Tabb allowed Arnold and others on his plantation to visit nearby farms. It was on one such outing that Arnold received his first offer to become an Underground Railroad conductor when an older woman asked him to take a young girl across the Ohio River to Ripley.
For the next four years, Arnold would make multiple trips a month from Dover, Kentucky, to Ripley, rowing upwards of 300 freedom seekers across to Ohio, even as he remained enslaved. His days as a conductor ended in 1864 after he was pursued by slave patrollers upon returning from a trip to Ripley. Arnold hid in the woods and farm fields for weeks.
Arnold eventually reconnected with his wife and the pair made a run for Ripley. They settled in Detroit, had 10 children and 31 grandchildren. Arnold returned to Ripley later in life before he died in 1938.
Marietha spent summers as a child in Ripley visiting her grandmother, Arnold’s great-granddaughter. Marietha, a nursing student, lives in Canal Winchester, Ohio.
The photographic process
These images were made using a dry-plate collodion, recreating a photographic process used in the late 19th century. Each image was made on an aluminum plate hand-coated with a photo-reactive gelatin emulsion of silver halide that was then dried and stored until exposure.
Participants were photographed over four days in April and May. A 4×5 field camera was used to make each image, and each photograph took about three minutes to properly focus and then expose. Once exposed, each plate was developed, washed and dried in a darkroom. After development, a digital camera was used to make an electronic copy of the resulting physical ferrotype. The original plates were given to each participant.
The interview and research process
Participants were interviewed and recorded in Ripley, Cincinnati and Canal Winchester. The interviews were then edited and condensed into the quoted text and the accompanying audio on Dispatch.com.
In addition to first-person accounts, reporting for this project pulled from a number of sources. They include: “Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad” by Ann Hagedorn; the U.S. National Parks Service’s Network to Freedom resources; the National Humanities Center; U.S. Census records, librarians and historians familiar with the region; and clips from local newspapers in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.
Ann Hagedorn also assisted in sourcing and lodging. Historians Betty Campbell, Caroline Miller and librarian Alison Gibson provided additional historical context and participants’ contact information.