MOUNT VERNON, Ohio – Patti Jamieson was about to give up.
It was spring of 2002, and she and her 13-year-old son, Andy McGough, had been driving through the backwoods of southwest Ohio on a mission.
They, along with Patti’s two younger sons and mother, were searching for a 73-year-old woman named Joan Southgate on the outskirts of Xenia, Ohio, about four miles from Wilberforce University, a historic Black college.
A few weeks earlier, Patti had tracked Joan down to ask if she and Andy could join the Clevelander for a day during her months-long journey to retrace Ohio’s Underground Railroad.
Joan was following a path that would take her from Ripley, Ohio – a village on the banks of the Ohio River across from Kentucky – all the way back home to Cleveland, a city codenamed “Hope” by 19th-century freedom seekers.
But now, in Xenia, Patti and Andy were lost.
The little caravan, which included Andy’s family as well as a journalist and her mother, pulled over. The newspaper reporter said she thought they had passed three petite figures near a bridge off U.S. Route 35.
Could that be them?
They regrouped and saw a trio of older women standing by the side of the road.
“And it was you!” Patti said recently, talking to the now 93-year-old great-grandmother. “You’re so short and your sister and your friend were so short that (one of us) thought you were little kids waiting on the school bus!”
Twenty years later, seated at a table in the Mount Vernon Middle School library, Patti smiled as she grasped Joan’s hand, recalling the decades-old confusion. The older woman’s bright blue eyes crinkled with laughter behind her oval-shaped glasses.
As a seventh-grader, Andy did a history project on slavery. Inspired, Patti had reached Joan all those years ago in the hopes that Joan could provide Andy with a first-person perspective.
Andy, now 33-years-old,
he has carried Joan’s legacy throughout his life by sharing her story and the stories of the freedom seekers she honored.
“If you don’t remember the past,” Andy said. “How are you going to help the future?”
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For many enslaved people crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky on their way to freedom, Ripley was a likely stopping point.
Ripley, settled in 1804 – just a year after Ohio was granted statehood – was one of the state’s most active stations on the Underground Railroad. Historians estimate that about 40% of successful freedom seekers trekked across the Ohio River. Ripley’s location along the river, proximity to nearby free Black settlements and the number of abolitionists living in town made it a prime location for freedom seekers to cross, according to historians.
Unlike other small towns, Ripley was a place where both Black and white residents worked together as abolitionists, moving those who made it across the river out of danger’s way. Abolitionists there were led by the Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister and architect of Ripley’s Underground Railroad. He built his hilltop home in 1828, where historians estimate that Rankin, his wife, Jean, and their 13 children personally assisted more than 2,000 enslaved people on their path to freedom.
Long before Joan Evelyn Southgate began what she calls “The Walk,” she was a retired social worker turned local activist and writer.
Joan frequently walked around her East Cleveland neighborhood, but at 4-foot-9 with four grown children and seven grandchildren, her efforts to stay in shape did not include ambitions to walk across the entire state.
But one day, she was struck by the prospect of embarking on a really long walk – the kind of walk that hundreds of thousands of Black freedom seekers endured more than 150 years ago.
As a child, growing up in Syracuse, New York, Joan always felt shame when slavery was a part of a history lesson. As the only Black kid in an all-white class, Joan was isolated and made to feel as though enslaved people’s suffering was somehow their fault.
Decades later, Joan wanted to shift that narrative. During a walk one day in February 2001, she started to think about what it would mean to highlight freedom seekers’ bravery.
“I started thinking what that would’ve been like,” she said. “Walking where there are no signs, no directions, no true pathways, and then, in that walking, it wasn’t walking. … It was running. It was escaping.”
It became desperately important that Joan find a way to honor the memory of those who had made that perilous journey to freedom in the North during the early to mid-19th century.
Joan said it felt like an ancestor whispered a simple command to her: Walk.
“It really was an awakening,” she recalled. “It needed to happen right then and there.”
When it came to slavery and abolition, Cincinnati was a city in conflict.
Although Ohio was a free state its prominence as a steamboat port and ties to commerce with Kentucky meant the slave trade was very visible. Northern cities could decry slavery from afar, but many Cincinnatians witnessed the evil firsthand.
Still, there was a brave contingent of Cincinnati conductors. In 1850, the Queen City had the third-largest population of Black residents in the country. Early Black communities, especially those along the riverfront, were significant in providing refuge for freedom seekers.
Today, Cincinnati is home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, situated along the same riverfront that beckoned hundreds of enslaved people one step closer to freedom.
She started training immediately: one hour of free weights three days a week, and a four- to six-mile walk four to five days a week, with the goal of eventually walking 10 miles a day during her journey.
Joan and a friend consulted Oberlin University’s archives to get a better sense of what her route might entail.
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After meeting in 2002, Joan Southgate and Andy McGough each impacted the other’s life in small but meaningful ways. Here, they reunite after 15 years.
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Along the way, she stayed in the 21st century equivalent of safe houses – homes of friendly strangers and acquaintances who offered shelter. A band of volunteers, made up of family and friends, walked and drove alongside Joan.
Friends helped Joan plan a path within what experts say are 3,000 miles worth of Underground Railroad routes in Ohio, eventually charting a 250-mile course through Ripley, Cincinnati, Wilberforce, Columbus, Mount Vernon, Oberlin and Cleveland.
Fourteen months later, beginning on April 2, 2002, she walked across Ohio – averaging 10 to 12 miles a day. It took her two months.
But she didn’t stop there.
In September 2002, Joan made a “quick, one-week 100-mile hike” from Cleveland to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, just south of Erie. In May 2003, she picked back up in Edinboro, completing the final 169-mile stretch through New York and into the city of St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada a month later – a total of 519 miles from her start in Ripley, Ohio the year before.
Joan’s final leg ended on the steps of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1820 by African American freedom seekers. One of the most famous members of the congregation, Harriet Tubman, lived in town from 1851 to 1858 and led about 70 enslaved people from the United States to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
Named for the early abolitionist and British parliamentarian William Wilberforce, the Greene County community in southwestern Ohio became a powerful force in improving the lives of enslaved people.
A decade before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Wilberforce College was established in 1856 to provide education and teacher training for Black youth. The African Methodist Episcopal Church purchased the college in 1863 to ensure its survival during the Civil War, making it the first Black-owned and operated college in the nation.
The small community served as an important stop for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad, with a hub of seven stations throughout the village.
Columbus was home to an active network of Underground Railroad stations and a thriving Black community, more than a dozen of which acted as conductors along the local line. Although there is no definitive public register of all Underground Railroad sites in Columbus, research done by the Friends of Freedom Society found there are well over 20 documented local stations, including private homes, schools, churches and businesses.
Perhaps the best-known station in Columbus was the Kelton House Fernando and Sophia Kelton – two wealthy, well-liked and fervent abolitionists – built their family home two years after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act became law, which required people in free states to capture freedom seekers.
The Keltons’ home became a safe house, sheltering those who passed through Columbus on their way north. There was no written record of the couple’s conductor activities, so it’s unclear exactly how many freedom seekers passed through the Kelton residence. One such individual though, a 10-year-old girl named Martha Hartway fleeing Virginia in 1864, was taken in by the Keltons after she was too weak to continue and became a member of the family.
“(Joan) could talk about diversity, equity and inclusion before it became a cliché,” said Margaret Bernstein, a former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter who reported on Joan’s walk in 2002. “I often referred to her as a pied piper. The quirkiness of what she does kind of jolts people out of their normal, working-day lives.”
When the seasoned reporter met Joan for the first time, Margaret noticed that Joan’s words – recalling the hardship Black ancestors endured and the respect they are owed – set the pace of every footstep she took.
All along, Southgate had been speaking at schools, churches and museums about the legacy of the Underground Railroad and slavery’s brutal stain on U.S. history. But she learned from these experiences, too.
“When I started out on the walk, I didn’t know ‘Hope’ was the Underground Railroad codename for Cleveland,” Joan said. “I learned that from the kids, like Andy, at the schools.”
“She told kids your history does matter,” Margaret said. “It’s not just enslavement and dehumanization – it’s actually about extreme courage.”
Attitudes about race and conversations surrounding change are not taking nearly as long to evolve as they used to, Joan said.
She sees it in the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and in the growing awareness of deep-seated racial inequities.
She sees it through Restore Cleveland Hope, her nonprofit group dedicated to promoting Cleveland’s history on the Underground Railroad, housed at the historic Cozad-Bates House.
She sees it in the feedback from the book she co-wrote with another former Plain Dealer reporter, Fran Stewart, called “In Their Path” – part memoir, part guide to Ohio’s Underground Railroad routes.
And she sees it acutely in Andy.
Although it is a small college town in northeastern Ohio, Oberlin’s contributions to the antislavery movement were vast and lasting. One freedom seeker reportedly said upon arriving in Oberlin that “all the abolitionists in the country must live right there together.”
Oberlin was founded on the ideals of interracial cooperation, a place where religious and political beliefs rooted in the abolition movement could thrive. Antislavery and Black candidates were elected to local office, Oberlin College was the first U.S. college to admit both women and Black students, and its public school system was integrated long before it was required by law.
The town gained national attention in 1858 for its role in the Wellington-Oberlin Rescue, when several dozen Lorain County residents were arrested to protect John Price. A Black man who had escaped a northern Kentucky farm two years earlier, Price had lived and worked in Oberlin as a free man since his arrival. After Price was taken by a bounty hunter, hundreds of local residents protested his capture. Several men broke down the door where Price was being held, hid him at the home of an Oberlin College professor, and swiftly transported him to Canada.
Years later, the rescue gave Oberlin a new nickname: “The Town that Started the Civil War.”
The last time they saw each other – before The Dispatch, a part of the USA TODAY Network, brought them together for a conversation in February – was at Andy’s high school graduation party in 2007.
Joan’s walk – and her influence on his own life – gives Andy hope that future generations of curious seventh-graders will learn not just from the injustices of slavery, but the racism that has guided so many, well beyond the Civil War.
“As long as the history continues to be taught to everybody, it won’t repeat itself,” he said.
And while progress will always be met by setbacks, the speed with which racism and cruelty are being held accountable is remarkable, Joan said.
Codenamed “Hope,” Cleveland was one of the last stops on Ohio’s Underground Railroad.
Although early residents were more focused on growing the community rather than taking up the slavery debate, New Englanders who eventually migrated to the Great Lakes region brought with them a disdain for the institution. With Oberlin to the west and Ashtabula to the east, Cleveland eventually became a key destination for abolitionists and freedom seekers.
Completion of the Ohio Canal in 1830 linked Cleveland to southern Ohio waterways, connecting the city to both commerce and access to Underground Railroad lines. William Wells, once a freedom seeker himself, helped smuggle dozens of people from Cleveland to Detroit and Buffalo, where they could easily complete their journeys into Canada. In 1842 alone, he ferried 69 freedom seekers across Lake Erie to Canada.
Today, Cleveland is home to Joan Southgate’s nonprofit group, Restore Cleveland Hope, which is dedicated to promoting Cleveland’s history on the Underground Railroad.
“Things are moving faster,” she added. “Way faster. I mean, look what’s happened in my life that I never could have imagined. Barack Obama? Are you kidding me? In my lifetime? No way. No way.”
Andy also knows how impactful it is to recognize his hometown’s connection to the Underground Railroad.
“We’re very rural here,” he said. “And the thought process here for the social justice stuff is not as prominent.”
Ashtabula was one of the last cities along Ohio’s Underground Railroad, located less than 20 miles from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border along Lake Erie’s shores. Northern Ohio was once the Western Reserve area of Connecticut, and many New Englanders with their antislavery ideals ultimately migrated to the area. These migrants saw Ohio, a free state bordered by then-slaveholding Kentucky and Virginia (before it split into West Virginia), as an ideal location to help freedom seekers.
Staunchly abolitionist residents openly declared themselves in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. Many of Ashtabula’s early settlers fought in the Revolutionary War and rejected the idea that freedom was not granted to all. An 1850 editorial in the abolitionist newspaper Ashtabula Sentinel read that “no fugitive slave can be taken from the soil of Ashtabula County back to slavery.”
Before the pair could head home, an older woman named Helen Rosser approached Joan and Andy at the library. Rosser, a longtime computer technology and health aid, was set to retire at the end of the week.
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but I wanted to tell this lady I remember her. I remember you being here,” she said, gesturing toward Joan. “I can’t tell you how many years ago it was when you were walking through town. It’s so nice to see you. … What was your name again?”
The 93-year-old smiled before answering in her soft-spoken crackle:
Follow Céilí Doyle on Twitter: @cadoyle_18.