Lawrence County’s Underground Railroad: The Plight of Freedom Seekers

Local News

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. 

It’s often easier said than done, and almost impossible if you try to put yourself in a slave’s shoes, or lack there-of, during the 1700s and 1800s in the United States.

“This was an arduous journey” said Dr. David Lucas, a local historian in Ironton. “You had to escape whatever plantation you were in.”

An arduous journey for freedom seekers who made their way right here to Lawrence County from as far as South Carolina and Georgia, to as close as the Jenkins Plantation in Cabell County.

“The river was a lot lower those days In that region there, along Proctorville, down along through South Point, down along through Ironton, and Hanging Rock, especially as it makes that turn, it slowed the water down,” said Dr. Lucas.

According to Dr. Lucas, enslaved people were not good swimmers, as they were not taught to swim or allowed to swim for that matter. But in the winter time, when the river froze, those freedom seekers could walk across without fear of drowning.

“Imagine walking all that way with no shoes. Imagine crossing the river iced over. Imagine not being a swimmer and grabbing a hold of a plank or a log, and hoping that you can get to the other side. Imagine,” said Dr. Lucas emphatically.

Once these freedom seekers crossed the Ohio River, Dr. Lucas says their journey could have taken anywhere from 3 to 6 months.

These freedom seekers are said to have hid in many places, including the Campbell home on 5th Street in Ironton, and mansions like this around town.

“In a lot of those mansions in Ironton, they still find them,” said Dr. Lucas Lucas. “There are hideaways built into those homes where you could hide 15 to 20 enslaved peoples to finally get them out by dark of night.”

Homes like those of Kevin Waldo were part of the underground railroad. 

Waldo says he knew something was up, even as a young child, all because of one of the rooms in his home.

“There was a room that was right here, it was a small lavatory type closet room and it had about a 7 foot tall ceiling, and all the other ceilings in the house are 11 or 12 feet in height,” Waldo explained.

“Years later, I went up in the attic and found a hidden room. It had a ladder going down to it from the attic. The only logical explanation about the room would’ve been the possibility that it was used to secure slaves that were coming across the river during the abolitionist era, and I would that they hid the slaves in this small room.”

Dr. Lucas says in the dark of night, freedom seekers headed out.

“They knew to go north by watching the stars. They were taught to do that, to pass that down,” he said.

Freedom seekers would convene at pig iron furnaces across Lawrence County.

Once there, iron masters would hide them at the bottom of their carts, and provide them with provisions as they made their journey to freedom toward Canada.

“Imagine. Week after week, after week, hiding out in brambles and bushes and trees, hiding under bridges just setting out to get away from that evil, that burden was just so heavy,” said a passionate Dr. Lucas. “They wanted that freedom.”

Even after a grueling and exhausting journey, nothing was sure for these former slaves, except a new start.

But once they made it to the northern regions of the United States and Canada, Dr. Lucas says they were finally free and could start their lives over again.

“They could get a job, they could get a parcel of land, they could begin to grow vegetables,” said Dr. Lucas. “ [They could] do the kinds of things they already knew how to do from the plantations.”

At the end of the journey, finally, breathing in free air with no slave master, it was worth every step.

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