I ended my Black History Month celebration in February by taking a trip to visit Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with some students, faculty and staff from The Ohio State University at Lima.
Having seen the film Harriet last year, which told the story of a young Harriet Tubman as a valiant Underground Railroad conductor through Maryland’s Eastern Shore, I was really excited to learn more about Ohio’s role as a significant state that provided a pathway to freedom.
As we began our bus route from Lima heading toward I-75 South, I was reflecting on a question that has been asked regarding Black History Month in recent years. Is it still needed?
I think that most would answer yes, and I would add from my experience as an educator that we need to aim toward being more inclusive of all ethnic groups when it comes to teaching American history.
Concerning black history specifically, there have been criticisms that setting aside a month for black cultural achievement continues to segregate us. I believe that many people have felt this way when learning about American slavery because this was one of the darkest eras of our nation, and it is often depicted as a black-versus-white narrative.
This is true to a great extent due to the racial horrors of slavery, but one way to present this history so it does not seem so separatist is to teach more about white abolitionists, fearless men like John Rankin of Ripley, Ohio, who believed slavery was an abhorrent and wicked institution.
Rankin’s story is a part of the lecture tour at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and it was a wonderful reminder that whites and blacks fought together to end bondage and oppression.
The museum visit features a short film on Rankin and his work with fellow abolitionist John P. Parker as conductors through Ripley’s Underground Railroad routes. Parker was a former slave who was able to purchase his freedom in 1845 at the age of 18 while working in an iron foundry in Mobile, Alabama.
He moved to Ripley in 1850, the year the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and made dangerous trips across the Ohio River to help runaway slaves from Kentucky escape to Canada. On the slaves’ route up north, Rankin’s home served as a safe house to hide them from fugitive slave catchers.
The story line of the film is very similar to scenes in Harriet, as Parker is on a mission to rescue two runaway slaves named Alice and Nathaniel. The slave catchers, along with savage bloodhounds, were on their trail. Alice suffers a deep cut while running barefoot, which impedes Nathaniel’s progress by a few crucial minutes. He makes sure that Alice gets to Parker’s rowboat but has to make his own way through the woods as time runs out.
Parker safely guides Alice to Rankin’s home, where Rankin and his sons boldly stand up to the slave catcher who demands her return.
One of the things that inspired me the most about Rankin was that he was a Presbyterian minister who courageously moved through his faith in God in fighting the evils of slavery. His conviction was similar to that of John Newton, the famed British abolitionist who penned the timeless hymn “Amazing Grace.”
In 1823, Rankin unabashedly gave his perspective on slavery to The Castigator, one of Ripley’s local newspapers: “I consider involuntary slavery a never-failing fountain of the grossest immorality, and one of the deepest sources of human misery; it hangs like the mantle of night over our republic, and shrouds its rising glories. I sincerely pity the man who tinges his hand in the unhallowed thing that is fraught with the tears, and sweat, and groans, and blood of hapless millions of innocent, unoffending people …”
The fact that Rankin described slavery as “human misery” shows the great depth of his compassion and his belief, as stated in Galatians 3:28, that there is “neither slave nor free” but that we are “all one in Christ Jesus.”
At the end of the film, the Lima students were inspired to learn about Rankin and Parker. This was encouraging because our group was diverse, and it was evident that this lecture presentation was effective in showing how black history is truly shared American history.
— Jessica Johnson is a lecturer in the English Department at The Ohio State University at Lima. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. Click here for more columns. The opinions expressed are her own.