Lawrence County’s Underground Railroad: Who Made It Possible?

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One might say John Rankin and John Campbell were born way ahead of their time. Dr. David Lucas certainly does.

“They were doing what humans should be doing, but at the time it was not what most people wanted to do, because they were afraid,” said Dr. Lucas. “These folk are not given the acclamation they deserve.”

The Underground Railroad in Lawrence County is a region Dr. Lucas, a local historian, says goes unnoticed in most of history.

“Any person who drives north on 93 in Ohio should stop in Blackfork and bow [their] heads and say ‘thank God for these people,’” Dr. Lucas said with conviction.

According to Dr. Lucas, Rankin and Campbell showed bravery by helping with the Underground Railroad at a time slavery was still legal.

“[Slaves were] considered property. It’s the most heinous, hideous kind of institution this country has ever entertained,” said Dr. Lucas. “[Rankin and Campbell] went against all the odds. This was not a popular moment [in history].”

Dr. Lucas calls Rankin a powerful preacher and abolitionist who had great significance not only in Ripley, but in Ironton.

“His influence on people around him; the women’s circles and groups and churches and all the iron masters was absolutely powerful,” said Dr. Lucas.

Dr. Lucas says Campbell, Ironton’s founder and one of Rankin’s disciples, was able to create trails from the iron furnaces in Hanging Rock, Ironton, Proctorville, and Burlington all the way up to Blackfork and Poke Patch. 

So, how did they do it? How were they able to help enslaved people through Ohio? And who helped them? 

Well, it all started with some homes still in Ironton, including Campbell’s home on 5th Street and what is now Kevin Waldo’s home.

“It’s part of history, and I feel good about the fact that maybe some ancestor that owned this house, or somebody that did own this house, contributed to the end of slavery, and contributed to helping humanity out in the way that they did,” said Waldo. “I’m tickled to death that maybe this house contributed to somebody’s safety and their freedom.”

Once enslaved people made their way out of homes like Waldo, Dr. Lucas says the iron masters took to ensuring freedom.

“Every iron master in Lawrence County, Ohio, without exception was an abolitionist. Every iron master,” proclaimed Dr. Lucas. “They just did not embrace that whole concept of slavery. All of the people working in the furnaces were ferrying these folks away from that institution of slavery.”

Dr. Lucas says the iron masters ferried freedom seekers from across the river, including those that were enslaved at the Jenkins Plantation in Cabell County, took them up through Jackson and “got them up on a northern path so they could get away.”

However, it’s hard to tell how many people may have been helped by those here in Ironton and Lawrence County.

“It’s countless [people],” said Dr. Lucas. “Nobody kept tabs because if you’re John Campbell, if you’re one of the ironmasters, you’re not keeping an inventory of people you’re ferrying away. It was against the law!”

But according to Dr. Lucas, that’s the point.

“These folk were rugged champions of freedom, and have always been,” he said. “We can learn from the journey these people were on to be better people, and that’s what we have to do. We have to strive to stop hurting each other and help each other. That’s what we have to do.”

Total strangers who crossed paths to help out these freedom seekers. Risking everything so former slaves might have the freedom they unequivocally deserved.

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