Tuesday, February 20, 2001

'Slave' leads tours on Underground Railroad

Actress goes beyond just telling the story

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Carol Stone, portraying an escaped slave, begins her journey through the past at the Springboro Historical Society's Underground Railroad room.
(Michael Snyder photos)
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        SPRINGBORO — Carol Stone is a 52-year-old black woman who reaches into her past 50 times a year to bring Grace Prudeau to life.

        Grace is a runaway slave from rural Louisiana who ends up in rural Springboro, home to an active Underground Railroad station in the mid-1800s.

        “I believe the character is a gift from God,” Mrs. Stone said. “Everybody has a personal history. I used mine — and my African-American experiences — to create Grace.”

        In character, Mrs. Stone leads visitors on tours of the Warren County city's Underground Railroad sites. She dresses and talks like a Deep Southern slave in the days before the Civil War.

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        “I put visitors in a place and time and let them understand how someone wanted freedom so badly that she would run away,” Mrs. Stone said. “I want people to feel and smell the past. Escaping was a big risk for her — and for the people of Springboro who operated the Underground Railroad. With God's blessing, 1,000 people (runaway slaves) went through this town.”

        Mrs. Stone's idea sprang from her wedding in 1998. Her mother and sister wanted something to do one afternoon, so the family took a tour conducted by Don Ross, a former council member and a leader of the city's historical society.

        “I didn't even know there was an Underground Railroad here,” Mrs. Stone said. “But I loved the tour. Later, my brother-in-law wanted to go too. Don Ross said, "Why don't you take him?' Things developed from there.”

Leg shackles and handcuffs are on display.
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        Intrigued by Springboro's past, she created the character by combining elements of her grandmother, an old plantation resident whose name was Grace; her mother, whose last name was Prudeau; and an old woman from Mrs. Stone's childhood.

        “I wondered how in the world I could ever do the dialect,” she said. “Then I remembered a lady we called Granny, who told us stories as kids in Chicago. She had that old Southern dialect. I used her to create the voice.”

        Now, Mrs. Stone and Mr. Ross often conduct tours together. He tells the compelling story of the Underground Railroad in Warren County. She performs as Grace.

        “Carol brings the history to life,” Mr. Ross said. “She's terrific.”

        At the museum, 110 S. Main St., she dresses in an authentic-looking costume sewn by an Amish woman. The museum includes a room devoted to the Underground Railroad. It is stocked with publications on the subject, rusty leg irons, maps, replicas of slavery handbills, a local Underground Railroad conductor's black suit and other artifacts. The walls are painted with scenes of the period.

        But not every visitor is happy with her performance.

        “I get a few steely-eyed looks among the smiles,” she said. “Some black people consider this being Uncle Tom.”

        Mrs. Stone escorts visitors around a six-block area. They walk past the Joseph Stanton House, 250 S. Main St., where a family hung quilts outside to signal that all was safe, and the Jonathan Wright House, 80 State St., which had a V-shaped hidden room and a tunnel beneath the first floor.

        Mr. Wright, a town founder and Quaker, led the local Underground faction. Mrs. Stone said she's grateful to him and others who helped the slaves.

        “People need to know their history,” she said. “It's not something we need to relive, but it's something we should not forget.”


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