ROME CITY, Ind. (WANE) – The Underground Railroad is a major part of United States history, with many ties to northeast Indiana.
The Underground Railroad was a network that fought to resist the enslavement of African Americans by escaping through the end of the Civil War between the 1820s to the 1860s. Slaves who fought to gain self-emancipation are referred to as freedom seekers.
The Gene Stratton-Porter Historic Site hosts a series of events that teach about the Underground Railroad. It includes a presentation featuring different speakers, and a night hike afterward that demonstrates the techniques used by freedom seekers in their journey north.
“I think it’s important because it puts people in the shoes of these people,” said Lauren Oxley, program director at the site. “To know where we are as a country now and where we’re headed, we need to know where we came from.”
Due to freedom-seekers traveling through Auburn and Kendallville, Oxley said freedom seekers are believed to have passed through the Gene Stratton-Porter Historic Site area, and the trip was very dangerous.
“If there was an injury along the way, they didn’t have a hospital. There was malaria, and as they traveled north, they were experiencing things that they had never experienced before like snow,” Oxley said.
Oxley recalled a story she read from a Philadelphia abolitionist who would write down the stories of freedom seekers.
“One of the stories he recounts a man who gets frostbite because he didn’t have proper shoes, and he ends up losing both of his feet and he ends up passing away,” Oxley said.
Sharon Zonker, a retired teacher, gave a presentation on the Underground Railroad and what all it entailed. Zonker taught on Catherine and Levi Coffin, who served as the President of the Underground Railroad. She said to her surprise a lot of people don’t know this.
“I’ll ask a group, how many of you know who Levi and Catherine are? They don’t know, maybe two or three out of 50 or 100. And so I feel like I’m letting people know that Indiana is very rich on the eastern part of our state,” Zonker said.
Fort Wayne also has a connection to the Underground Railroad, as historians believe freedom seekers found refuge in multiple areas throughout the city. One of them was the Alexander T. Rankin House.
“We actually have correspondents from Levi Coffin, which recommends to someone to go through Fort Wayne because at this time he believes this to be the safest route,” said Connie Haas Zuber, Executive Director of ARCH Incorporated.
Haas Zuber described Alexander Rankin as a “fiery abolitionist preacher.” It’s believed that a crawl space in a hidden basement at the Rankin house was used to hide freedom seekers.
“The house is on a basement and the trap door to the basement is in this room, which we believe was the parlor,” Haas Zuber said. “The site has space where you look at and think, hmm, someone could hide there.”
Haas Zuber said architects are conflicted on if this is true. One architect said they believe it is; the other said the wall doesn’t look old enough for it to be true.
Haas Zuber said there are other spots in Fort Wayne that freedom seekers traveled through such as a home that was once located on Fairfield Avenue and Wayne Street; however, the Rankin House is the only building that remains standing.