Sunday, July 01, 2001

A journey to the past

Underground Railroad sites tour one more venture for a busy woman

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You can't help but wonder, what on earth was J. Lajuana Miller thinking? Starting a new business when she's already working 14 hours a day?

        She is, after all, up to her eyeballs planning Ujima Cinci-Bration. And Acoustic Lunch Tuesdays in Piatt Park. And dozens of events for the Hamilton County Park Board. And a Jerry Butler concert Aug. 11 in Eden Park.

        She needs another job?

        Yep. Her CRA Solutions has a thriving new business leading Secret Passage Tours, an excursion to Underground Railroad sites in the Tri-State.

[photo] J. Lajuana Miller in the Harriet Beecher Stowe House.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        So here she is now, jockeying a way-too-big Ford Explorer out of a way-too-small parking place, explaining that yeah, she's busy, but she's a lucky woman.

        “I think I have it figured out: People live their lives expecting a great high to happen. It never does. What I've learned is that you stack all the little highs together and they become one great big mountain.”

        Right now, her mountain's up in the Everest-osphere and never mind that climbing it takes all day every day, working out of the Evendale home the 46-year-old entrepreneur shares with banker husband Mark Walton and 19-year-old son Steven, a student at the University of Toledo.

        “I'm lucky the way this happened. It took three calls to talk me into Ujima three years ago, but once I started, I loved it. I feel I've stumbled onto what God wanted me to do with my life.”

        It wasn't always that way. She came here in 1978, fresh out of the University of Georgia, to work at P&G. She stayed 10 years, then went to Firstar. Then her own consulting firm in '93 and event planning in '98.

        “I grew up in near abject poverty, but I had a chance to sit at the big table, and now I think I'm on the verge of being the best person I can be.”

        Right now, her personal best involves backing out that Explorer — “It's my husband's midlife crisis car. I call it the BOAT, short for Big Ole' Ass Truck.”

        But that doesn't stop her from using everything from the Explorer to a 55-seat bus on tours.

        “We began them at the suggestion of the Freedom Center. They'd get requests but couldn't do them. So they contacted me, then hooked me up with Joyce Coleman, a historian who works at the IRS. We researched and documented every aspect before beginning. Joyce can't leave during the day, so I do the tours. She's one incredible researcher.”

        Ms. Miller isn't such a bad researcher herself. Witness her other new project. Like she needs another new one.

        “I've developed an African-American trivia game called Family Reunion. It's 400 cards in four categories — sports, entertainment, music and potpourri. It's things like black beauty queens; blacks who served in the Cabinet; blacks at Harvard or Yale. Everything is documented.

        “I'm hoping it's available by December.

        “Summer is our busy time,” she says, maneuvering the Explorer around Walnut Hills. “What happens is we keep getting referrals. People tell friends, they tell friends and so it goes.

        “Right now, tours are about 50-50 African-American and white, and the same for locals and out-of-towners.”

        What tourists get is a trip lasting from a couple of hours — “we can abbreviate it for people on a tight schedule” — to all day with a stop for a soul food buffet at Millie's Place in Madisonville.

        They learn how runaways traveled 17 miles a night and hid in bushes by day. They learn how they followed waterways. They learn how friendly homeowners would hang out quilts with escape routes sewn into the pattern. They learn how Cincinnati was the first stop on the Railroad and Glendale the second. They learn how college kids, seminarians from Cincinnati, left school to set up railroad stations.

        A full-day tour ($55; $30 for a half) goes as far east as Ripley, to the Rankin House that harbored hundreds of runaways, as far south as Old Washington, Ky., where Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom's Cabin after seeing a slave auction, and as far north as Springboro, Ohio, where John Wright had his home built over a series of tunnels and secret rooms.

        Closer to home, the tour goes, well, let's take it with her ...

        • Walnut Hills, heading north: “This area was a hotbed for abolitionists for three reasons. It was the home of Lane Theological Seminary (now the site of Thompson-MacConnell Cadillac at 2820 Gilbert Ave.). Harriet Beecher Stowe's father was president and helped organize the Lane Debates on slavery. They're credited with giving Lincoln the ammunition he needed to push the Emancipation Proclamation.

        “It's also where Harriet lived (2900 block) when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.

        “And it's the site of Wehrman Avenue, where Levi Coffin lived. He was a minister from the Carolinas who moved here because of the location on the edge of the South and its place in the Railroad system. He helped thousands escape.

        “His first time helping a slave escape was when he was 10. He led a man through the woods to safety. They called him President of the Underground Railroad.”

        • Spring Grove Cemetery: Enter through the North Gate, off Gray Road and head to Section 108. Here you'll find Levi Coffin's grave and the haunting inscription: “A tribute from the Colored people of Cincinnati.”

        “Can you imagine the courage it took to do that in 1877?” Ms. Miller asks.

        • Sixth and Main Streets, Covington: “This marker commemorates the Slave Trail where Margaret Garner (heroine of Toni Morrison's Beloved)passed on her flight to freedom. I think that really speaks to the inhumanity of slavery — that she would kill her own children rather than let bounty hunters take them back.

        “Northern states never knew how cruel it was. Harriet (Beecher Stowe) blew the lid off.”

        • Fourth and Garrard Streets, Covington: “It's the Kentucky Employment Office now, but back then it was the John White Stevenson mansion, built over a series of tunnels leading to the Licking River. Runaways would come and go that same way.”

        • Riverside Drive, Covington: A statue of James Bradley sits on a bench, reading a book: “He was a slave who bought his freedom. The way that worked was a slave worked all day for his owner, then be hired out at night to another owner. The slave's owner got half and the slave got half. When they saved enough, they bought freedom.

        “Bradley played a role in the Lane Debates — to have a former slave lent credibility. This is where he crossed the river.”

        Ms. Miller saves the most dramatic for last: “We have a closing ceremony on the river where we hand out small flashlights.

        “We stand with our lights on and pay tribute to ancestors — to our black ancestors who struggled to freedom and to our white ancestors who helped them.”

       Call 563-9380 for tour information; check for Ujima details.


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