Earlier this Fall I had an opportunity to visit the little abolitionist town of Ripley, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati. As an avid history buff, this was a visit I really looked forward to. And as a docent on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Freedom’s Friends” tour, I couldn’t help but contrast these two very important abolitionist towns. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences.
I started out on a tour of the home of Reverend John Rankin, the spiritual leader of the Ripley abolitionist community. It’s believed that most of the estimated 2,000 freedom seekers who came through Ripley found shelter in his house or barn. The house itself is quite small. It certainly would have been cramped quarters for Rankin and his wife, Jean, and their 13 children, their several “foster” children, and whatever freedom seekers happened to be staying with them at the time. The house is a National Historic Landmark. It’s nice to see the meticulous work that’s being done to preserve it and restore its antebellum character.
Rankin House, Ripley, Ohio
The house sits atop a 540 foot high bluff overlooking the Ohio River. Reverend Rankin built a set of stone steps leading all the way down to the riverfront streets below so that freedom seekers could have “easy access” to his house after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky. One of the highlights of my visit was descending, then climbing, these steps. (What can I say? I get into that kind of thing, lol.) A large section of the steps has since been replaced with a wooden stairwell, which undoubtedly made the climb easier than it would have been back in the day. It certainly would have been a difficult climb at night, possibly carrying a child, after a long hard journey through Kentucky and across the Ohio River to get there in the first place.
Rankin stairway overlooking the Ohio River
Rankin stairs from the bottom
Reverend Rankin was an “evangelistic abolitionist”, much like Oberlin’s spiritual leader, Reverend Charles Finney. Both believed that slavery could and should be ended through moral reform and prayer. However, where Reverend Finney felt that Underground Railroad activity was a distraction to the real work at hand, Reverend Rankin was one of the most active Underground Railroad conductors in the country. Rankin would also eventually come to take a more political stance, becoming a member of the Liberty Party (an abolitionist political party that would be a precursor to the Republican Party) in 1843. Rankin, however, was only the leader of Ripley’s anti-slavery element, which was only a small minority of Ripley’s overall population. Finney on the other hand was a spiritual leader of Oberlin as a whole, where the vast majority of the population was anti-slavery.
After visiting the Rankin House, I went down the hill for a visit to the John Parker House, on the riverfront street appropriately called Front Street. John Parker was born into slavery in Virginia, but eventually was able to purchase his freedom and move to Ripley, where he became a very successful businessman and industrialist. He was also one of the most daring of all conductors on the Underground Railroad. His house is now a museum. I enjoyed the many fine exhibits there and the informative presentation the staff gave about John Parker and his exploits. Parker has an Oberlin connection in that he sent two of his sons (Hale Giddings Parker and Cassius Clay Parker) to Oberlin College.
John Parker House
What was most unique about Parker is that unlike the other Ripley Underground Railroad conductors, he would actually cross the river into Kentucky to help freedom seekers escape from slavery. In this way he assisted hundreds of people to their freedom. His story brought to mind the story of Calvin Fairbank, an Oberlin College student who went to Kentucky and helped dozens of enslaved people find their way to freedom. Interestingly, both the Oberlin and Ripley abolitionist communities were uncomfortable with these exploits. It was extremely dangerous work, it violated Kentucky law, and many considered it provocative. Fairbank was caught and spent a total of 16 years in Kentucky prisons, enduring numerous beatings and whippings. Fortunately Parker was never caught. Being a black man, he undoubtedly would not have gotten off so “lightly”.
After leaving the Parker House I took a walk along Front Street and read some of the historical markers that line that road. One highlights the journey of an enslaved woman who crossed the thin ice of the Ohio River with her two year old child and became the inspiration for the story of “Eliza” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This too has an Oberlin connection, for in the book (but not in real life), Eliza was married to a man named George Harris, who also escaped from slavery and joined her in Ohio. The George Harris character is said to have been inspired by Oberlin resident Lewis Clarke, who is buried in Westwood Cemetery.
While in Ripley I bought a book called Beyond the River, by Ann Hagedorn. The book gives an outstanding description of the abolitionist history of Ripley, much like Nat Brandt’s The Town that Started the Civil War does for Oberlin. One of the things that really stuck out for me in reading this book was the detailed accounts of the “Lane Rebels”, who would play such an important role in abolitionizing Oberlin. These were students at the Lane Theological Seminary, in nearby Cincinnati. Some of the Lane students shared a similar background with many of the abolitionist founders of Ripley – Southerners who had been born and raised with slavery, but came to question it and even abhor it. In a series of 18 public debates in 1834, attended by Reverend Rankin and other Ripley abolitionists, a group of Lane students debated the question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states abolish slavery immediately?” At the end of the debates, their answer was a unanimous YES. But the surrounding community wasn’t happy with this, or with the other anti-slavery/civil rights work the students were involved in. Eventually a mob even threatened to tear the school down. As a result, the trustees of the school prohibited any further anti-slavery activity or discussion, which prompted dozens of the students to quit the school in protest. Many of these so-called “Lane Rebels” would come to Oberlin the following year and become the seed of the abolitionist movement here.
But Ms. Hagedorn’s book also highlighted a major difference between Ripley and Oberlin. In Ripley, like in most abolitionist towns, the abolitionists were a small minority of the overall population, a situation aggravated by its close proximity to Kentucky. Oberlin, however, was quite unique among abolitionist towns in that its abolitionists formed the vast majority of its population ever since the arrival of the Lane Rebels in the second year of its existence. In Ripley, the abolitionists had to operate in top secrecy, and they were frequently subject to raids by mounted posses of slavecatchers who would storm into town, pound on their doors at any time of the day or night, and demand to search the premises, often at gunpoint. In Oberlin, by contrast, the abolitionists could be relatively open about their activities, and it was the slavecatchers who had to operate in secrecy. A freedom seeker coming to Ripley generally could not stay more than a day, for fear of being found in one of the few abolitionist homes. But the estimated 3,000 freedom seekers who came to Oberlin had many more options of where they could stay, and often would stay for months, years, or even “for keeps”. In Ripley and the surrounding area, there were many instances where pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist mobs burned down schools, churches, barns and homes, and even abducted abolitionists and people believed to be fugitives from slavery. In Oberlin, when the mobs gathered, they were mobs of abolitionists (and much less violent). Oberlin mobs might surround a house that was being staked out by slavecatchers and help the inhabitants escape undetected. Or, in the case of the “Oberlin -Wellington Rescue”, an Oberlin/Wellington mob even stormed a hotel to free a man who was being held by slavecatchers.
In closing, I have one final observation that came to me as I was doing some independent research. In an interview in the 1880s, John Parker said of Ripley, “The town in its simple way goes on unheeding its valiant men and their deeds.” In the decades following the Civil War, it would appear that Ripley, like Oberlin, lost sight of its abolitionist heritage. Fortunately both towns have long since rectified that. And thanks to dedicated organizations like Ripley Heritage, Inc., the John P. Parker Historical Society, the Ohio Historical Society, and our own Oberlin Heritage Center, the proud heritage of both towns will continue to thrive and flourish.
Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent
Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River
Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War
Oberlin Heritage Center “Freedom’s Friends” history walk
John P. Parker, Stuart Seely Sprague, His Promised Land