Growing up, I was never a huge fan of history class. Listening to someone recite dates and the names of Generals and famous battles was a serious snooze-fest. However, I have always enjoyed experiencing history. There is something magical that happens when I know that I am standing where important people once stood. It is so much more impactful to actually experience historical places, instead of just hearing about them.
There are some towns along the Ohio River, just a stone’s throw away from downtown Cincinnati, that are significant to our nation’s history, specifically to the Underground Railroad and slavery. I think most of us know this, however, I don’t think many of us have actually taken the time to visit and learn about that time and those places. I know I hadn’t… and I grew up here. Part of this is due to simply not knowing where to go or where to start, so my hope is that sharing my recent trip will encourage more Cincinnati families to make the effort to visit and learn.
There are many historical sites along OH Route 52, in New Richmond and beyond, that played a role in the Underground Railroad. From what I can tell, many of these are buildings, which while they still stand, can only truly be observed from outside. I have been wanting to do a self-guided tour of these places, but I knew that my children would grow weary of this within minutes. It wasn’t until a friend told me about the Rankin House that I found my destination.
Reason #1 Why Everyone Should Visit: It’s an enjoyable and educational tour.
The John Rankin House is located about an hour and 15 minutes from downtown Cincinnati. The drive is peaceful, pretty, and well worth it. Once upon a time, the Rankin house was a well-known “station” on the Underground Railroad. A reverend by the name of John Rankin and his family landed in Ripley, Ohio as a result of circumstance and quickly became known for being vocal advocates against slavery and willing to help care for and transport slaves passing through, in search of freedom. Additional circumstances eventually led them to build a house, way up on the hill overlooking the Ohio River. There, they kept a lamp burning at all hours to signal to slaves that their home was one where they could get food, clothing and assistance towards the next station on their journey.
Obviously, I am shortening this story quite a bit, but that is because I feel like it is absolutely worth making the trip and hearing it for yourself.
Fact Learned: No slaves were caught while in the care of the Rankin family.
Open from May – October, you can get a guided tour from one of the docents of the Rankin House and it was one of the most captivating tours I have ever experienced. The tour guide was knowledgeable about the history of the house, the time period in which the Rankin’s lived there and the area in general. The house has been kept up to closely resemble the details as they would have been when the Rankin’s lived there and you can almost feel their ghosts as you imagine what it might have felt like to hear that knock on the kitchen door, signaling another slave had arrived for food and assistance. You can vividly imagine the feelings of fear they must have felt everyday, fear that certainly colored their existence, but never stopped them in their mission. I went on this tour with a friend and our kids even enjoyed learning bits and pieces of history (chamber pots!) and were actively engaged in the tour, which helped keep them from going stir crazy.
Fact Learned: The character Eliza in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is based on a young slave woman who sought help from the Rankin family.
After our visit at the Rankin House, we were directed down to the river towards the John P Parker House. This house is more of a museum, but it was the home to a former slave who bought his freedom and went on to assist in helping slaves get to freedom. He worked closely with the Rankin family and became a very successful steel worker and foundry owner of that time. You can still see fences which were made by him (in the 1800s!) as you walk along the homes on the riverside. I purchased a book while at the John P. Parker House, with some information and a map to a self-guided tour of other important historical locations, so we took a walk along the river to check out a couple of those additional sites, including the church where Reverend Rankin would preach.
Reason #2 Why Everyone Should Visit: This is OUR history.
As I wandered the John P Parker museum and read some of the history on the walls, I was struck by the inescapable realization that this piece of history was a reality… a shameful, sad reality. It is difficult to wrap your head around, but it is important that we try to do so. To live here in Cincinnati, so close to such an important piece of our history and not attempt to access it and learn from it, is truly doing yourself and your children a disservice. My kids are 6 and 7 years old and slavery is not a topic that I ordinarily would choose to initiate with them without reason, but it was a good conversation. I am glad we have started talking about it and I hope to continue it in the future as I explore more of this part of Ohio’s history with my kids.
Have you been to the John Rankin house or any of the other historical sites on the Underground Railroad (locally or otherwise)? I would love to hear about them in the comments.
CMB Mom Tip: If you are making a day out of this history lesson, along the route to Ripley, you will pass through Point Pleasant, which is the birthplace of President Grant. You can easily add this simple stop to your day if you choose to do so.