There's a Movement Afoot
Eskridge, Ann E., Fitzgerald, Sharon, American Visions
Standing upon a Kentucky plantation's field of tobacco stubble, Beverly Gray gazed across the shoreline at Ohio. She wondered how slaves who once tilled this ground had managed to endure the endless, backbreaking work, knowing that freedom was just across the river.
Gray's musings continued as she walked across the field and peered down a steep embankment into the murky Ohio River. In awe, she imagined fugitive slaves running by night through the woods, carefully climbing down the hillside, making their way to the river's edge. If they were fortunate, a boat awaited to ferry them across the water. Gray thought of the brave runaways who never made it to freedom, as well as of the many who did.
As an educator and a member of the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, Gray spends much of her free time investigating and documenting sites that may have significance in the Underground Railroad movement. She has been researching African-American history, and particularly the Underground Railroad, for the past 30 years.
"I live smack in the middle of an incredible history that's never been told," says Gray. Her research has taken her throughout Ohio, and sometimes, as with her trip to Kentucky, into the bordering South. "[I] wanted to see for myself what a slave saw on the banks looking across to freedom."
Gray's tendency to follow her instincts has been rewarded. On her way to the Ohio River, she spotted a plantation house, and something urged her to venture inside. The woman who owned the house graciously escorted her about. When they reached a particular bedroom, the owner mentioned, matter-of-factly, that it was from this room that "John Parker stole the baby."
To Gray, these words were chilling. A discovery like this one is not unusual for her, but each time, she is just as stunned by it. The story her hostess recounted was familiar to Ohio historians, but not as well-known by others.
At the narrative's center was John Parker, a fugitive slave who had escaped from Kentucky and settled in Ripley, Ohio. Once free, he became an inventor, industrialist and foundry owner. He was also an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
One night, he was set to guide a husband and wife into the free state of Ohio but found them reluctant to escape. It seemed that their owner was keeping the couple's newborn child in his bedroom, knowing that the parents would not leave without their baby. As the story goes, Parker urged the man and woman to flee, promising to bring their baby to them.
"He crawled along the floor, went to the mistress' side of the bed and grabbed the baby," says Gray. "The master woke up and fired shots, but Parker and the baby were able to escape. He met the couple on the banks and spirited all of them to freedom in Ohio."
By identifying the achievements of men like Parker, as well as the sites of Underground Railroad stations, groups like the Ohio Underground Railroad Association are attempting to shed a clearer, more truthful light upon American slavery and upon the movement that fought against it. In 1998, the diligence of such groups, coupled with the dedicated scholarship and advocacy of historians and preservationists, prompted the U.S. Congress to pass a bill to support programs devoted to the Underground Railroad.
The political process began in 1990, when the National Park Service (NPS) received a congressional mandate to study the Underground Railroad and suggest how it could best be recognized. A committee was formed to review the possibilities.
For five years, experts in the fields of African-American and U.S. history worked with specialists in historic preservation to discuss the identification and protection of Underground Railroad sites and the development of interpretive and commemorative programs. Another goal was the development of a procedural blueprint for the management of important sites, routes and structures. …