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Columbus, Ohio The Last Stop On Footsteps To Freedom Study Tour

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Part XI
By Cheryl Brown
Photos by Jon Gaede

Our final stop and the departure of our travels on the 5th Annual Footsteps To Freedom Study Tour was in Columbus, Ohio, an area rich in Underground Railroad activity.

In Columbus there were an assortment of conductors and agents, and Black residents were among the most important, says Don Ross, Kelton House Education Coordinator. Ross met our group of 45 educators in front of Columbus’ famous Kelton House and explained the history and the context of the times, as well as the Kelton House’s role on the Underground Railroad.

The first African Americans to come to Ohio came with their masters in 1797 from Kentucky and Virginia, settling in Franklinton. In 1802 one vote kept Ohio from becoming a slave state. By 1804 there were approximately 300 Blacks in the state. This is the same year that Ohio enacted its Black Codes.

According to historians, Ohio had the cruelest laws on the books against Blacks called the "Black Codes". The Black Codes (Laws) were a means of controlling Blacks who came into Ohio. The laws required that Blacks show they had a means of supporting themselves. They had to pay a $500 bond signed by two White men within 20 days in order to legally stay in the state.

By 1807 the UGRR was already at work throughout Ohio. The African American population increased and by 1820 the state’s population was 4,723. By 1829 Columbus had 288 Blacks. In 1849 The Black Laws were repealed but strict segregation laws replaced them. In one year the population grew to 25,279. The fugitive slave law went into effect in 1850 and by 1852 Fernando and Sophia Kelton had built and moved into their new home on the outskirts of Columbus. They were active Conductors on the UGRR.
The family hid freedom seekers in outbuildings, the basement, and the servant’s quarters of the large two story house. They were also hidden in a thirty-barrel cistern east of the house. Mr. Kelton’s son was one of the first to volunteer for the Civil War and tragedy struck when he was informed about his death in battle. When he went to pick up his son’s remains, Mr. Kelton hit his head when he fell off the wagon. He returned home and continued to have seizures. One day he was sitting in the window on the second story when he must have had a seizure and fell to his untimely death.

One of the best-known stories told about his work is from the early 1860’s when two young children, who had taken the UGRR, arrived at the doors of the Kelton’s home. The Keltons took in Martha and Pearl Harthway. Pearl was afraid of the slave catchers and moved on through the system but Martha stayed and became a part of the Kelton family. They raised her along with their own children. In 1874 Thomas Lawrence was a carpenter looking for work and came to the Kelton house. He and Martha met, courted and were married in the living room of the house by Rev. Poindexter, the pastor of Second Baptist Church and President of the Anti-Slavery Society.

Quilts held important messages during the Underground Railroad. They were usually hidden in plain view. That prompted a book that speaks to the issue of the message of the quilts, aptly named Hidden In Plain View. In the book Jacquline L. Tobin documents the heritage of her own family and their connection to quilts. She fascinated the educators with her story, her knowledge, and the success of her book. Some of the educators just happened to have one of her books on the motorcoach and she gladly signed it for them.

The Kelton House is on the National Register and is one of the top wedding sites in America, but it is also known to be haunted. It has been rumored for years but this time many of our teachers experienced unexplainable happenings. I personally bumped up against someone while listening to the docent speak about the house in the parlor. When I looked around to see who it was there was no one near me. My puzzled look alarmed some of the educators who mentioned it to me when we returned to the motorcoach. Roy Mason, our videographer, said he felt a cool breeze when he was left alone in a bedroom. It was as if someone briskly walked by. Uncomfortable about it, he went back to the first floor. As he was taking a video of the photos on display of Martha and her husband his camera would not focus. When it did all he saw in his lens was the wallpaper that was behind him. Julie Lattuca, another teacher, left as soon as we entered. She said the spirits that were in the house didn’t like her. Our travel agent, Gloria Kenley of Kenley Konnection located in Columbus, said she had had experiences previously and refused to go in. The house cannot keep cleaning people because of the strange occurrences and many people have over the years reported different things happening in the house. It is on the list of haunted houses in America.

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