Clevelanders don’t tell our own story enough. Whether it’s the story of inventors, sports pioneers, masters of modern medicine or heroes of the civil rights movement, we have not fully woven our history into our city’s brand. But, it’s never too late to change.
For 150 years, one of the least told chapters of Cleveland’s history is its role in the antislavery movement, both the courage of freedom seekers who traveled the Ohio Underground Railroad and the abolitionists in Cleveland who assisted them. Cleveland, a city with the codename “Hope,” was an important destination for freedom seekers in the mid 19th century, along with cities on the Ohio River. While fugitive slave laws, known as the Ohio Black Laws, required that runaway slaves found in Ohio be returned to southern states, the most important destination for a freedom seeker in Ohio was the other side of Lake Erie on the Canadian shores. Cleveland was a pivotal final station on the Underground Railroad to freedom.
This year, the Cozad-Bates House will open as Finding Hope: Cleveland and the Underground Railroad, an interpretive center located in University Circle. Three nonprofit partners — University Circle Inc., Western Reserve Historical Society and Restore Cleveland Hope — will tell the great untold story of Cleveland’s role in the Underground Railroad.
The Cozad-Bates House is a Cleveland landmark on the National Register of Historic Places located on Mayfield Road in University Circle, formerly known as East Cleveland Township. Among the first settlers to the Western Reserve were the Cozad and Ford families. They lived in farmhouses along Buffalo Road (today’s Euclid Avenue) and were abolitionists like many of their New England and Quaker neighbors in the township. They provided safe harbors for fugitive slaves and shuttled freedom seekers by wagon to Downtown Cleveland, where passage by steamship would be arranged to Canada. Persons such as John Brown, a freed barber, helped arrange passage, as did John Malvin, a freed canalman and conductor on the Underground Railroad.
The Cozad-Bates House is the oldest and only pre-Civil War residency in University Circle. Portions of the farmhouse date back to the early 1850s and 60s, and the newly renovated areas of the home will now tell the story of life in Cleveland before the Civil War and showcase stories such as these below:
The Oberlin Wellington Trial – Cleveland was the site of the Oberlin Wellington Trial. Thirty-seven citizens of Oberlin were arrested for aiding in the escape of the formerly enslaved John Price, who escaped to Canada. Tried in the Federal Court of Cleveland, two citizens were found guilty and jailed. After public protest on Public Square, indictments were dropped and the prisoners were released.
Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson – Enslaved by a man named William Goshorn of Wheeling, West Virginia, Sara fled to Cleveland, where residents attempted to assist in her freedom. The last fugitive returned from the north before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lucy became free when West Virginia seceded in 1862. She returned to Cleveland and is buried in Woodland Cemetery.
Frederick Douglass – This exhibit tells the story of Frederick Douglass’ numerous trips to Cleveland to advocate for the abolition of slavery and shows the positions local newspapers took on the issue. The Plain Dealer, at the time, was an advocate for the enforcement of fugitive slave laws in order to, in their belief, preserve the union. The exhibit recounts Lincoln’s visits to Cleveland and explores the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments in a modern context.
Many of the greatest features of the interpretive center are located outside of the house. An “equity table” invites all to picnic together with the inspiring quote from the journal of former homeowner Justus Cozad, which reflects on earlier days when he and his father worked in fields with freedom seekers, then dined with them at the same table.
A “bench by the road” faces the house thanks to the author, Lorain native and Nobel Prize recipient Toni Morrison. Ohio native plants that were used by freedom seekers for food and medicinal purposes further the interpretive experience, as do stars inlaid in stone that telegraph astronomical navigation on the journey north.
The path alongside the house, named Southgate walk, honors 91-year-old Cleveland resident Joan Southgate, who at 73 walked 519 miles from Ripley, Ohio, on the Ohio River through Cleveland to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, honoring those who made that walk 150 years ago on the road to freedom.
This April marks the 15th anniversary of the Cleveland landmark designation of the house, which saved Cleveland from losing another storied structure to the wrecking ball. Instead, history lives on in Cleveland’s University Circle with the renovation and interpretation of the Cozad-Bates House.
Chris Ronayne is president of University Circle Inc. and chairman of the Canalway Partners board of directors. He is the former Cleveland planning director.