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Oberlin and Detroit Were Important to the Underground Railroad

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By Cheryl Brown –

Oberlin, OH is a small town with a big story and the Footsteps study tour participants stayed at the Oberlin Inn as they have done every year of the 14 year tour. The restaurant and the hospitality are outstanding. It is the only hotel in the town that encompasses Oberlin College. The keeper of the area’s artifacts is the Oberlin Archives. The visit is appropriately academic because it is full of primary source documents and items that tell this story of American History.

Among the great holdings is a collection of anti-slavery newspapers, the Bible used by the famous Oberlin Rescuers, shackles used in bondage, an original grave marker for the Dobbins child -- previously mentioned in the August 25th edition of Black Voice News -- and more.

Archivist Ken Grossi, gave a lecture on the important stories of Oberlin. He expanded on the Oberlin Rescuers and displayed the original documents backing up the lecture. He said when John Price, who had self-emancipated from Mason County, Kentucky to Oberlin was caught by a slave catcher, the town became alarmed and many decided to take matters into their own hands. They went in large numbers to the nearby Wellington Hotel and snatched Price away from the slave catchers, hid him in the most unsuspecting home until they could whisk him away to Canada. They defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and a large group of about 34 of these 24, Blacks were jailed in Cleveland, OH. The trial made headline news. There was a reprieve of sorts when a countersuit for kidnapping was filed by the accuser’s lawyers. And after 3 months, the men were set free. On display was the Bible used by the men to keep their faith strong. There is a photograph of the “Rescuers” and a number of related items. But the group could not tarry too long because just like in the past, it wasn’t safe to stay in one place too long.

The next stop for the field study was Detroit’s First Congregational Church and the educators on the trip are still talking about what happened in the cellar of that church. The historical church (not that building) were conductors on the UGRR.

Looking across the Detroit River into Canada (the land of freedom and longing to be free) stands a statue of a group of freedom seekers. And, as a companion piece, on the Windsor, Ontario Canada side stands another statue that depicts that some of the freedom seekers did not reach freedom.

Other locations in Detroit were also important to the story. The Motown Museum was a special treat. What the Gordy family was able to accomplish less than 100 years after slavery’s end is phenomenal. The story of ingenuity, perseverance and working together as a family and a community shows what could be done then and gives hope to what may inspire students today.

The group also had an opportunity to meet the directors of Urban Garden Inc. Detroit is known as a food desert (limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables). The group is taking vacant lands in the city and making them gardens. Just as in enslavement people are turning back to community and backyard gardens.

Amazement greeted the group upon their arrival to the African American Museum in Detroit. First the magnificent building architecture and then the wonderful exhibits, it is a place that will bring you full circle with the information the experience is outstanding.

The last stop for this week is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Henry Ford collected everything. He collected cars, airplanes, trains, and buildings among his many holdings. The buildings bring the educators to the experience of the slavery. The two plantations that are visited are different but the fact is that they still enslaved Black people who could not own themselves a concept that is a foreign to us as freedom was to them. The Susquehanna Plantation was probably the most common. They were the “gang” plantation, where the enslaved worked from sun up to sun down, (“can’t see to can’t see”). And the Hermitage slave quarters drastically different in they were a “Task” plantation, when they were finished with their work on this plantation they would be able to rent themselves out or make bricks for themselves. Many times they could buy their freedom this way, although there were laws limiting them living free. Ford picked up the entire structure and relocated it in Greenfield Village.

There is a huge display of American History inside the museum that focuses on the beginning of our nation and the free labor that made it so great. There is also the heartbreak of looking at the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. They also have the famous bus that Rosa Parks ignited a revolution by just not moving.

One of the events that take place on the Susquehanna is a reenactment of actual slave life from the harsh realities of beatings to the times they out smarted the master with whimsical stories of Brer Rabbit. The re-enactors Ernestine Worford and Tony Lucas have for several years been an outstanding addition to the Footsteps to Freedom Field Study.

Footsteps to Freedom is sponsored by, Southwest Airlines, National Parks Service Network to Freedom, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, through a Teaching American History grant, Riverside County Office of Education, Black Voice Foundation, Inc and is facilitated by Kenley Konnection, of Columbus, Ohio.

The next installment will be Canada the land of Freedom, or was it?


The next installment will be Canada the land of Freedom, or was it?

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