On a historic marker outside Cleveland’s longest-standing church edifice, the words of early Cuyahoga County historian Stella T. Hatch reveal a page out of Cleveland’s role in the Underground Railroad: “In the tower of St. John’s Church were often secreted runaway slaves until such time as they could be shipped to Canada.”
From the tower, they watched for the lantern signals of small boats on the Cuyahoga River and its canals that took them to larger boats on Lake Erie sailing to Canada and on to freedom. St. John’s Episcopal Church stands today at the corner of what was Church and Wall streets (now West 26th Street), and offers scheduled tours of this important Ohio landmark and its story in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
Five miles east, restoration is under way on one of the oldest remaining homes on the East Side, the Cozad Bates House. Its oldest section is being renovated as an interpretive center that tells the story of the anti-slavery movement in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio in the 1800s.
Three nonprofit organizations — University Circle Inc., the Cleveland History Center and Restore Cleveland Hope — are working on an exhibit exploring University Circle, then known as East Cleveland Township, and its place in history as a hotbed of abolitionism. An introductory panel designed by Cleveland History Center in the Cozad Bates House will set the scene in antebellum Cleveland, when Quaker and New England settlers in Ohio’s Western Reserve served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, providing safe houses for fugitive slaves.
“The relative remoteness of the two (Cozad family) homesteads provided a natural safe haven for fugitive slaves trying to reach Canada,” the panel will read. “To travel by boat to Canada, fugitives could go west to Cleveland harbor or east to Ashtabula, or even further to Buffalo to get to Canada via the Niagara Falls railroad bridge after 1855.”
When freedom-seekers reached the terminus of the Cuyahoga River to the north and Euclid Avenue (then Buffalo Road) to the west, they and their guiding conductors often arrived at John Brown’s barber shop. Brown, a free man and the wealthiest African-American in Cleveland, had started the city’s first black school and emerged as one of Cleveland’s go-to conductors and stationmasters at the final terminus of the Ohio Underground Railroad. Brown would help fugitive slaves launch from what is today’s Port of Cleveland to the freedom of the Canadian shore.
Ohio’s Underground Railroad routes were the largest network of any state in the nation, with over 3,000 miles of routes extending from more than 23 points along the Ohio River. These routes would guide travelers from such places as Ripley, Ohio, to more than a dozen northern Ohio gateways like Oberlin, Sandusky and Ashtabula. Cleveland carried the code name Station Hope, as it often was the last stop on the journey before the free shores of Canada across Lake Erie.
In the cemeteries of Cleveland lie the heroes of the story of the 1800s, be it Lakeview and East Cleveland Township Cemetery, where the Cozads are buried, or Woodland Cemetery, where John Brown is buried along with Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson. Johnson, the last fugitive slave prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act, ran away from her slave owner’s farm in Wheeling, in what was then Virginia, in 1860. She was working in a Cleveland home in 1861 when John Goshorn and his son, William, came to Cleveland to “reclaim” her; despite the protest of Clevelanders, a local commission upheld the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Returning to Virginia, Johnson was set free by way of the Union Army’s occupation of Western Virginia and the formation of the new state of West Virginia in 1863.
From these landmarks, we as a community of Clevelanders can proudly map our role in an ongoing story of courage. Cleveland’s role in the Underground Railroad is an educational and inspiring tale of the courage of men and women, black and white, and a story of bravery and hope. As discussions abound nationally and internationally today about the human journey, the story of freedom seekers who sought Station Hope in Cleveland in the 1800s remains relevant.