By Cheryl Brown
The day began as we left the Courtyard by Marriott in Beavercreek and traveled to Wilberforce and Xenia, Ohio. This area was a hotbed of abolition. It has been said that people just disappeared in the ground. It wasnt until 1988 that the underground Harding (Laughead), "cellar house" built in (circa) 1810 complete with a hidden trapped door, burned to the ground revealing what has become known as an underground railroad site.
Documents of the abolition society located at the historic society show the owner of the property (David Mitchell) D. M Laughead as one of the members who paid $1.00 for the secret society membership dues in or around 1837. Also a diary of either the Laugheads or the Nicholsons, a Quaker family who moved in the house in 1839, speaks of visitors in the night and going nearby to hear Mr. (Frederick) Douglass speak. There are also references to other abolitionist speakers.
In 1803, before Ohio was a state, David Laughead moved to the area from Pennsylvania and built his first house. In 1806 he received an additional 800 acres of land from the Virginia Military Reserve in reparation for his services in the Revolutionary War. He had 8 children. The child that is most notable was his namesake David who married Elizabeth Kyle and is believed that to be the architect of the "cellar hole. In 1824 the elder Laughead died and left the property to his son David. His wife Elizabeth died four years later. David II was known as an abolitionist and was an UGRR stationkeeper. He lived in the two story main house. In 1839 the Nicholsons moved into the house with the cellar hole. They had been very active in the abolition movement of Harveysburg, Ohio. The late Peg (Bradfute) Fife provided the family history, including a photograph calling them "station keepers". They moved away from the house in 1842. The land remained in the family until 1867 when, at 88 years or age David, sold it to his sister and brother-in-law John and Eliza Bradfute. For the next 110 years the Bradfute family owned the land that passed back and forth through the family from time to time. The "cellar house" records show up again in 1920 when H. Sanford an African American farmhand for the Bradfute family moved in the house. While he was living in the "cellar house" the Harding family resided in the two-story house. Sanford lived in the house until the late 60s or early 70s. In 1977 the property was sold to William and Catherine Kyles and in 1986 they sold it to Steven and Marcella Bains Smith. When the house burned down in 1988 Marcella was amazed. She told the Footsteps To Freedom educators who visited the site that she has had an Indian medicine man do a cleansing of the area and he reported a lot of activity and a strong field down in the tunnel.
In 1998 Norman Lee Barrett, Jr,. a student under the guidance of Robert Riordan, Ph.D, wrote a research paper and was among several Wright State students who conducted a field study and excavation of the site. The disturbance of the material holding it together however caused one of the walls of the cellar to collapse and the site is deteriorating fast.
Marcella is trying to save the site and hopes by allowing people to visit it, that someone will someday help to preserve that important part of the history of "freedom seekers" who were helped by ordinary citizens who felt that slavery was morally wrong.
There are many other sites in Greene County among them are the Monroe house in the town of Xenia. Monroe was a furniture maker and traveled often to North Carolina. He was a member of the Anti-Slavery Society and is said to have carried his cargo (freedom seekers) in his wagon hidden away from sight, he hid them in a barn (that is no longer standing) adjacent to the house.
Mrs. Esther Williams, our guide is the keeper of the culture in the area. She is a native and the stories she shares have been passed down to her. Mrs.Williams 103-year-old mother passed away two weeks before we arrived. She told the story of the Nosker house located on U.S. 68 . Legends that the house was an underground railroad site were proven when the homeowner fell through the front yard revealing a tunnel. "Freedom Seekers" would come in the area on the cattle cars of the railraod that stopped not far from the house, they would find all kinds of garden tools and would travel to the next destination using the tools as props as not to cause undue attention to themselves. The site is privately owned.
She also tells the story of the Rodin house that was later used as a brothel out on the U.S 35 Highway. After emancipation it was found that the cellar of the house revealed iron rings imbedded in the wall that were used to detain the freedom seekers caught by slave catchers.
Of the most famous sites in the area is the African Methodist Episcopal institution Wilberforce University, the oldest historically Black university in America. The replacement Shorter Hall, a building on the original campus, was torn down three years ago but the original, said to be a UGRR site, was burned on the night of Abraham Lincolns assassination. For the past five years under the direction of Dr. John Henderson and Jackie Brown, the University has welcomed the teachers with lunch and a look at the university archives. The new president Rev. Floyd Flake carried on the tradition this year serving lunch and giving the teachers an opportunity to see the many children attending the summer session. The area cannot be completed without a look at the beautiful stained glass windows depicting the history of the A.M.E. Church part of Wilberforce Universitys Payne Theological Seminary. Founder Richard Allens window depicts him as well as other important abolitionists and historic Biblical figures.
The other site is the Col. Young house. Originally a southern slave owner for the family he had with one of the Black women he enslaved built the house. It is said she used it for a UGRR site. That history is said to be found in the cellar. In the cellar there is a bricked in wall that looks like the remnants of a tunnel. Highway 42 was built over the tunnel and from time to time the road shows the depression where it is said to be located.
Dr. Floyd Thomas of the Afro American Museum is currently in charge of developing the house as a Black military museum dedicated to the memory of Col. Young, the first Black graduate of West Point. Young was found to be unfit when it came time for him to man the troops in battle. Very upset with the blantant racism he proved them wrong and road a horse from Wilberforce to Washington, D.C. in the dead of winter. The house is now owned by the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
Valena Randolph, Education Specialist, helped to organize the Wilberforce tour. There was so much to see that most sites were seen from the motor coach.
In memory Edith Washington Johnson, a close friend and supporter of the Footsteps to Freedom program a plaque and lit a candle was in her memory. She was on the Afro-American Museums Board of Directors and was the granddaughter of Booker T. Washington. Last fall she came to Riverside, California following in her grandfathers footsteps to commemorate his visit to our area in 1914.