Monday, June 9, 2003

Teachers retrace Underground Railroad

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

They huddled in a darkened jail cell near Maysville, walked a steep muddy trail in Ripley, Ohio - where thousands of escaped slaves fled across the Ohio River to freedom - and stood at the Northern Kentucky auction block where families were forever divided.

For 22 Tristate teachers, the Underground Railroad took on new meaning last week, when they took part in a Northern Kentucky University class to help them teach one of the darkest periods in American history.

Between classroom lectures and multimedia presentations, the K-12 Ohio and Kentucky teachers visited Tristate stops on the Underground Railroad and pre-Civil War landmarks where slavery once flourished.

By encouraging their students to peruse faded court documents, read abolitionists' first-hand accounts, and visit stops on the secret network that helped slaves escape from the South, the teachers hope to better convey the brutality of slavery to their students and make the Underground Railroad relevant to today's youth.

That educational philosophy continues today, when the three-day Borderlands II Underground Railroad Conference for researchers, preservationists, teachers and genealogists gets under way at NKU.

Documented Underground Railroad sites in the Tristate include:
• Home of former slave John P. Parker, credited with helping more than 900 slaves reach freedom via his riverside home at 300 Front St. in Ripley.
• Home of a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. John Rankin, whose Ripley hilltop home was nicknamed "Liberty Hill'' by the more than 2,000 slaves Rankin's family helped to freedom.
• A home at 310 Garrard St. believed to have an underground tunnel, the Carneal House on Second Street with a tunnel leading to the Ohio River, and a tunnel discovered during construction of Panorama apartments, all in Covington; Elmwood Hall on Forrest Avenue in Ludlow, recognized by the National Park Service for tunnels and hiding spaces used by fleeing slaves, and a second home with tunnels just two streets away at 416 Closson Court.
• A home at 232 E. Third St. in Newport believed to have tunnels underneath that were part of a network of tunnels between Gen. James Taylor's home and a Third Street Church.
• The Dinsmore Homestead in Burlington.
Source: The Ohio Underground Railroad Association and the Northern Kentucky African-American Heritage Task Force
Among the examples last week's educators say they know will hit home with students:

• How African-Americans were willed to slave owners' descendants as property.

• The female slave who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's Eliza when she crossed the Ohio River's broken ice with her baby.

• Slave couples who married "until death or sale do us part."

"Standing there at the actual site where slaves were sold, you can envision what it was like to be there," said Lisa Willoughby, a second grade teacher at Boone County Schools' Erpenbeck Elementary. "Crying children were being ripped from mothers. Whole families were torn apart and sold like property. It literally gave me chills."

Spencer Crew, executive director and CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, complimented NKU for "taking a lead in the teaching of Underground Railroad history." The center is scheduled to open in mid-2004 on Cincinnati's riverfront.

"When I look at state curriculum standards, they focus primarily on slavery and the Civil War, and the Underground Railroad is treated as a footnote between those major topics,'' said Karen Regina, manager of education for the freedom center.

Despite that, she said teachers see the Underground Railroad as an exciting way to teach history because of their students' enthusiastic response.

"Think about the people today who get on terrible leaky little boats and try to sail from Cuba to the U.S.," said Paul Finkelman, a professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law and a national expert on slavery. "They're willing to risk drowning in the ocean to come to a place where they can be free. That's how the Kentucky slaves felt when they took dramatic risks to get across the Ohio River to freedom. They felt that anything was preferable to being a slave."

Helpers in danger, too

Before the Civil War, Tristate residents who helped escaped slaves dodged bounty hunters and risked the loss of their livelihoods. Kentucky threw people in prison for helping escaped slaves, and Ohio residents could be fined for giving a job to a fugitive slave, Finkelman said.

Captured slaves had it much worse. They faced brutal beatings, permanent separation from their families and sometimes death.

Conveying the gruesome brutality of slavery and making the Underground Railroad relevant to 21st-century youths were among Denise Dallmer's goals when the former high school history teacher developed her class for local teachers.

Four years ago, the professor in NKU's College of Education sat at her kitchen table and sketched an outline for the Regional Underground Railroad Teaching Summit.

For the past three summers, 62 teachers have taken the graduate studies course sponsored by NKU, the Institute for Freedom Studies, NKU's College of Education and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Participants' lessons are videotaped when they return to school, and the class reconvenes in October to share presentations.

"This class combines what you learn in the classroom with what's out in local history,'' Dallmer said. "It's important to get your students out in the community to experience our local history.''

Participants post lesson plans for teaching the Underground Railroad on the Web. Next summer, Dallmer plans to open the course to teachers throughout the country.

Last week, teachers in Dallmer's class visited ex-slave John P. Parker's riverside home in Ripley. They learned how he purchased his freedom by earning extra money in a foundry, then settled in the abolitionist town, where he worked in the foundry by day and helped fugitive slaves escape by night.

The teachers also viewed Kentucky's Ohio River shoreline from the hilltop home of the Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister whose Ripley family helped more than 2,000 escaped slaves to freedom.

"By tying slavery to this area, I think students relate to the subject so much better," said Sharon Williams, who teaches eighth grade history at R.A. Jones Middle School in Florence. "When they go to a Reds ballgame or shop downtown, they're actually walking where 50 percent of all escaped slaves walked."


For information about the Underground Railroad Conference, visit or call (859) 572-5817.

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