Local historians are still working to identify homes and people that played a role in the Underground Railroad.
By SHERRI L. SHAULIS
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
RANDOLPH -- John and Harriet found a new life and new friends in this tiny town in Portage County.
The couple fled their Parkersburg home in what was then Virginia, now West Virginia, to escape the bonds of slavery.
After making their way into Ohio in the fall of 1846, they settled in Randolph, known as a center of radical abolitionism.
All was well, until residents got word from the folks in Deerfield: A band of kidnappers, including the son of John and Harriet's "owner," were on their way to reclaim the slaves.
"When these people came into town up old 224 and stopped at the inn, right away people knew what was up," explained Richard Staats, a local Civil War historian and member of the Randolph Historical Society.
"The whole town converged on them, carrying farm implements, weapons, broom handles. The Virginians thought better of the situation and were escorted out of town the next morning."
Stories like this one are prevalent in the history of Randolph, but many were forgotten over the years.
Staats, along with fellow historical society member Carey Steele, continue working to change that.
The two, researching local history independently of each other at first, joined forces and enlisted other members of the Randolph Historical Society to identify the people and places in town associated with the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was a loose network of antislavery Northerners who illegally helped fugitive slaves reach safety in the free states or Canada in the period before the American Civil War.
The efforts of the society's members resulted in the presentation of an historical marker from the Friends of Freedom Society and the Ohio Underground Railroad Association.
The plaque was presented recently at a ceremony during the town's Heritage Festival. The society will officially unveil the plaque at the old Town Hall in the center of Randolph at a ceremony Oct 5.
"This was apparently the best-kept secret in Randolph," Steele said of the town's involvement in the Underground Railroad.
"When I finally approached the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, they told me, 'We've been waiting for you.'
"Randolph's people and places were already so well-documented that basically all we had to do was find a way to pay for the plaque."
The whole process started when Staats was doing his own research on the Civil War, and Steele began researching the history of the home on state Route 44 she and her husband bought a little over two years ago.
Their paths crossed when Staats kept coming across the name of William Stedman, who was a soldier, politician and famous abolitionist.
Stedman was related through marriage to the family of Oliver Cromwell Dickinson, another famous abolitionist and one of the original owners of Steele's home.
Dickinson's family led the rally of Randolph's citizens to fight against slavery, going so far as to have townspeople pledge to defend runaway slaves as they would defend their own family members.
Townsfolk even agreed to fight, to the death if necessary, to prevent kidnappers from taking slaves back against their will.
"It became common knowledge that people in Randolph were not going to give the slaves back," Steele said.
Through their research, historical society members have identified other homes -- mostly along state Route 44 -- and structures, like the old Town Hall, that were used to hide slaves running for freedom.
Many of those buildings, including Steele's home, are marked with orange flags from the Ohio Underground Railroad Association. Each structure was either used as a site to hide slaves or was the home of a well-known abolitionist, Steele said.
There are still more to be identified, she added.
"We hope this will encourage others to look around them and think of the stories in their own homes and towns," Steele said. "Maybe they have a hunch that there is much more to the story."