The African-American experience in columbus blog
This blog features 28 posts on the African-Experience in Columbus from the Underground Railroad to the civil rights era.
By Matt Doran
There are over twenty documented homes still standing in Central Ohio today that were part of the Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War. Only two of these sites, the Kelton House in Columbus and the Hanby House in Westerville, are open to the public.
When Fernando Kelton moved to Columbus from Vermont in 1852, he married Sophia Stone and built a house at 586 East Town Street–the last home on Town Street and considered far out in the country at the time. The Keltons were drygoods wholesalers by trade and active members of the antislavery society and conductors on the Underground Railroad.
Because the Underground Railroad was a highly illegal endeavor, there were few written records left behind. Most of the evidence for these sites comes from oral histories and information passed down through family lines. In the case of the Kelton House, the oral history of the Kelton and Lawrence families supplies the following narrative, as recorded on the Ohio Historic Marker located on the site:
One documented story is that of a 10-year old runaway named Martha Hartway. Born a slave in September 1854 on a plantation near Richmond in Powhattan County, Virginia, Martha, along with her sister Pearl, fled the plantation. They left at their mother’s urging when she was told the girls would be sent to work at the Big House. Kelton family tradition states that Sophia found the girls under a shrub next to the house. Too ill to move, Martha was taken in by the Keltons and remained for ten years. Pearl continued north to Wisconsin because she felt Ohio wasn’t safe. In 1874, Martha married Thomas Lawrence in the front parlor of this house. The son of free-black parents, Thomas was employed by the Keltons as a cabinet-maker. . . .
From Columbus, those seeking freedom moved north to Clintonville and Worthington along High Street, and to Westerville along Harbor Road (Cleveland Avenue) and Sunbury Road. In Clintonville, they may have hidden at the Clinton Chapel where Rev. Jason Bull conducted services while his daughter took food and water to runaways hidden in an interior room. Further north in Worthington, Henry and Dolly Turk, the first African-American family to live in Worthington beginning in 1856, used their home as a safe house. Those seeking refuge through Westerville were often harbored at the home of Bishop William Hanby, one of the founders of Otterbein University.
The ultimate end of the Underground Railroad was to reach Canada, where runaways would be outside the scope of the federal Fugitive Slave Law, and truly free.
Click here to view more Central Ohio Underground Railroad homes.
Teaching Columbus began in 2012 under the direction of Columbus educators Matt Doran, Karen Fiedler, and Doreen Uhas Sauer.