We drove past a metal gate enormous enough for a maximum security prison. It was 4:30 p.m. Up a road with blind corners, overgrown with a hickory and oak forests, we came to a small building stained with white-washed paint: Interpretive Center. A sign was pinned on the door: “Closes at 5:00.” I pulled the knob. Locked. I looked around. Besides Myron and me, there wasn’t another soul in sight.
A long sidewalk led to a house in the distance. The sidewalk curved like the gentle sway of a key signature. It made me feel held. The house was red with a gray shake roof and perched on a hill, majestic, lonely. A pamphlet I had picked up outside the interpretive center explained we were at the Rankin House. Rankin, it said, was a minister who worked in tandem with the black abolitionist John P. Parker. Parker lived down the hill in the town of Ripley. Parker’s and Rankin’s houses were beacons for thousands of human beings crossing the Ohio River to escape slavery before the Civil War.
We padded along the winding sidewalk. Maybe, I thought, the house would be open. We could look around at the period furniture, do a tour. I ran ahead and tried the doors. Shut tight. Only a gilded plaque: Reverend John Rankin House has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
The house overlooked the wide Ohio River flowing gently below. Also on the hill, about 50 feet away, was a white man with a graying beard. In khaki shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops, he was laying on the ground under a giant, granddaddy maple.
I walked over. “Hello,” I said. He grunted as he sat up and answered my questions. He was the caretaker, yes. We could stay on the grounds until 5:00--no longer. And no, we could not go in the house; we could not go into the interpretive center.
“Even though we drove all the way from Chicago?” I pleaded. Even though I had spent fifteen years of my life studying the institution of slavery and its abolition, I thought.
“Oh, things have changed since COVID,” he said, and he set his head back into a pillow of grass and pulled his big straw hat over his face. That was that. I couldn’t push him an inch further.
By now, Myron was relaxing on the other side of the house, reading stats about baseball and politics and COVID-19 on his phone.
I made my way to the stone steps of the house. In the not so distant past, I thought, as I swung my camera over my shoulder and started down the steps, this land would have been filled with trees and shrubs, multiple paths made by freedom seekers crisscrossing the dense wilderness between here and the Ohio River.
I’d spent years of my career researching and writing about slavery and abolition in England and the Caribben. I recalled that it had been twenty-five years since I’d read The History of Mary Prince A West Indian Slave Related by Herself, published in 1831 in London. In that book, I first learned about the many selves one had to develop to survive the brutal institution. Up to the time I read Mary Prince, I had been studying the nineteenth-century male poets, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and John Keats. By comparison, Prince’s story was so much closer to the bone. It lived in my mind, the place-names—Brackish Pond, Hamble Town, Veld-Cornet, and Spanish Point—and the words of sorrow—"a heavy day!”; “it is too much”; and “shrouding my poor children.” From that point on, I couldn’t help but hear Prince’s stories and words pulsing underneath the poetry of the male poets. In those days, I traveled all over England visiting the archives, libraries, museums, and landmarks of slavery and abolition—the London Dockyards, Bristol, Liverpool, Hull. I now realized I’d never faced the details of slavery and abolition in North America, my own homeland.
I felt a stirring, something from beyond whispering back to my thoughts. I felt giddy. I couldn’t take in everything quickly enough. Time condensed. What was it, the sun? The cool shade? The expansive view? Or the wooden steps rising from the wild understory to meet the stone steps where I stood?
Suddenly, a black man in a blue polo shirt, dark slacks, and expensive leather shoes was standing beside me. He introduced himself as Brian. His wife, sister, and brother-in-law had driven over from Cincinnati to see the Rankin House. We stood together. He was gazing down the wooden steps, the tangle of wild vegetation, and the river like he never wanted to leave.
“This place is about to close,” I said gently and gestured to the caretaker still lounged under the maple.
Brian folded his arms across his chest as if nothing could be further from the truth. “Can you imagine what it was like,” he said. He told me about the thousands of people who crossed the river. The river was much narrower then, he explained, and during periods of low rainfall, or during a freeze, some parts could be traversed on foot. Today the river was about twice the size, and much deeper, because of the dams.
People crossed here in Ripley from all points in the South, many in bare feet, he went on. They would have heard stories of this tiny town on the river full of hundreds of families, both black and white, working the Underground Railroad together. They also heard about the sheriffs, deputies, and bounty hunters with their dogs. Though Ohio was a free state, it was subject to the Fugitive Slave Act: not only was it illegal to hide or aid human beings who had escaped bondage, but Northerners were by law forced to help capture freedom seekers. Many, of course, did just the opposite.
Brian and I got acquainted. We were the same age. Our daughters were the same age. We were both wearing masks, and mine started to feel hot and awkward. I needed air. I wanted to take it off. I wanted him to pull his down. I didn’t want our faces covered even as I forced the thought from my head. With mask I place, I thanked him for the stories and kept looking at the steps, the wild vegetation, and the river.
If I was interested in abolition, he said, I should visit the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati. It was only an hour or so drive. He’d been there many times. He’d taken his daughters when they were young to the children’s section. It was real hands-on, he continued, but it was so hard. One exhibit showed white men and women shouting to black children, Take them away! We don’t want to see those n-----’s.
Brian took off his glasses and rubbed tears from his eyes. “Excuse me,” he said, “I didn’t mean to get so emotional.”
We were silent for a while—I don’t know how long.
Finally I said, “We’re camped at Scioto Trail State Park.” His eyes glinted in recognition. His father’s family, he said, was originally from Kentucky and they settled up near Scioto.
“They most certainly would have come through this portal at Ripley," he said. "Think of it. This small town was the most active on the Underground Railroad. Ripley had six cobblers, all of them fashioning shoes for those who crossed the river. For many of those people, the shoes they got in Ripley would have been the first pair they owned.”
Something drew my attention away. The caretaker had risen from his place under the maple and was walking our way tapping his watch. A lump grew in my throat. I didn't want the moment to end.
“I come here as often as I can,” Brian said, “and just try to imagine it.”