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Free at Last

A new museum celebrates the Underground Railroad, the secret network of people who bravely led slaves to liberty before the Civil War

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For families like the Rankins, the clandestine work became a full-time vocation. Jean Rankin, John’s wife, was responsible for seeing that a fire was burning in the hearth and food kept on the table. At least one of the couple’s nine sons remained on call, prepared to saddle up and hasten his charges to the next way station. “It was the custom with us not to talk among ourselves about the fugitives lest inadvertently a clue should be obtained of our modus operandi,” the Rankins’ eldest son, Adam, wrote years later in an unpublished memoir. “ ‘Another runaway went through at night’ was all that would be said.”

One Rankin collaborator, Methodist minister John B. Mahan, was arrested at his home and taken back to Kentucky, where after 16 months in jail he was made to pay a ruinous fine that impoverished his family and likely contributed to his early death. In the summer of 1841, Kentucky slaveholders assaulted the Rankins’ hilltop stronghold. They were repulsed only after a gun battle that left one of the attackers dead. Not even the Rankins would cross the river into Kentucky, where the penalty for “slave stealing” was up to 21 years’ imprisonment. One Ripley man who did so repeatedly was John P. Parker, a former slave who had bought his freedom in Mobile, Alabama; by day, he operated an iron foundry. By night, he ferried slaves from Kentucky plantations across the river to Ohio. Although no photograph of Parker has survived, his saga has been preserved in a series of interviews recorded in the 1880s and published in 1996 as His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker.

On one occasion, Parker learned that a party of fugitives, stranded after the capture of their leader, was hiding about 20 miles south of the river. “Being new and zealous in this work, I volunteered to go to the rescue,” Parker recalled. Armed with a pair of pistols and a knife, and guided by another slave, Parker reached the runaways at about dawn. He found them hidden in deep woods, paralyzed with fear and “so badly demoralized that some of them wanted to give themselves up rather than face the unknown.” Parker led the ten men and women for miles through dense thickets.

With slave hunters closing in, one of the fugitives insisted on setting off in search of water. He had gone only a short way before he came hurtling through the brush, pursued by two white men. Parker turned to the slaves still in hiding. “Drawing my pistol,” he recalled, “I quietly told them that I would shoot the first one that dared make a noise, which had a quieting effect.” Through thickets, Parker saw the captured slave being led away, his arms tied behind his back. The group proceeded to the river, where a patroller spotted them.

Though the lights of Ripley were visible across the water, “they might as well have been [on] the moon so far as being a relief to me,” Parker recalled. Bloodhounds baying in their ears, the runaways located a rowboat quickly enough, but it had room for only eight people. Two would have to be left behind. When the wife of one of the men picked to stay behind began to wail, Parker would recall, “I witnessed an example of heroism that made me proud of my race.” One of the men in the boat gave up his seat to the woman’s husband. As Parker rowed toward Ohio and freedom, he saw slave hunters converge on the spot where the two men had been left behind. “I knew,” he wrote later, “the poor fellow had been captured in sight of the Promised Land.”

Parker carried a $2,500 price on his head. More than once, his house was searched and he was assaulted in the streets of Ripley. Yet he estimated that he managed to help some 440 fugitives to freedom. In 2002, Parker’s house on the Ripley waterfront—restored by a local citizens’ group headed by Campbell—opened to the public.

On a clear day last spring, Carl Westmoreland returned to the Evers farm. Since his first visit, he had learned that the slave jail had been built in the 1830s by a prosperous slave trader, John Anderson, who used it to hold slaves en route by flatboat to the huge slave market at Natchez, Mississippi, where auctions were held several times a year. Anderson’s manor house is gone now, as are the cabins of the slaves who served in his household, tended his land and probably even operated the jail itself.

“The jail is a perfect symbol of forgetting,” Westmoreland said at the time, not far from the slave trader’s overgrown grave. “For their own reasons, whites and blacks both tried to forget about that jail, just as the rest of America tried to forget about slavery. But that building has already begun to teach, by causing people to go back and look at the local historical record. It’s doing its job.” Anderson died in 1834 at the age of 42. Westmoreland continued: “They say that he tripped over a grapevine and fell onto the sharp stump of a cornstalk, which penetrated his eye and entered his brain. He was chasing a runaway slave.”

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