The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor was it a railroad. Through villages and towns and across the rural countryside of the American East and Midwest, the Underground Railroad was a network of trails and pathways staffed by "conductors," black and white, who helped runaway slaves escape to freedom.
Some people, North and South, considered slavery to be "an abomination before God" and morally reprehensible. Some of these people called themselves "abolitionists" and worked through the political process to bring a legal end to slavery. Others worked more quietly, simply helping runaways escape to freedom in Canada.
Some people did a bit of both.
In 1828, a young man named James Preston Poindexter arrived in Columbus. The capital city of Ohio at that time was a rugged frontier village of about 2,000 residents. Some buildings in the town, like the Statehouse, were impressive, but much of the town consisted of simple frame and log houses on unpaved streets. Two large creeks swept down to the Scioto River and effectively divided the town into separate pieces.
But Poindexter, a man of African-American, Native American and Caucasian ancestry, liked what he saw and decided to stay. Over the course of a long career as a minister, barber and civic leader, Poindexter came to be recognized as one of the most important figures in the city's black community.
In 1895, Poindexter remembered for historian Wilbur Siebert his first impressions of Columbus:
"The first thing he heard was the local operations of the Underground. Jason Bull, a local Methodist minister of Clintonville, up High Street, was its manager. The three brothers, Jason, Alanson and Dr. Thompson Bull, had lived in that suburb from 1815 and aided runaway slaves from the time they first arrived by the Scioto Valley. They first hid them in barns on the east side of High Street, Jason's daughter carrying food and drink to them in an egg basket, as though out gathering fresh eggs.
"The Negroes were brought in wagons at night from Columbus by colored drivers, including Shepard Alexander, Lewis Washington, his son Thomas, and others. Lewis Washington owned several teams being in the excavating business. He was of unusual strength and could easily floor five ordinary men. He was a bad man to tackle when carting runaway slaves. After the streets were quiet at night, the conductors hauled their passengers up High Street or out Friend Street, later Main Street, which was the National Pike."
Over the years, many other residents of central Ohio, young and old, male and female, black and white, would risk their own liberty and sometimes their lives to aid those using the Underground Railroad. But in those early days, when the paths and stops were fewer, the work of the Bull family stood out. On July 25, 1892, Wilbur Siebert recorded the memories of a man who saw some of those early efforts.
His name was Amason Webster. Amazon Place and Webster Park Avenue in Clintonville are streets laid out on part of what once was the family farm.
"Born 1815 on High Street in Columbus, Ohio. I am not related to the Bulls who came from Vermont, with their father between 1815 and 1820. They settled at Clintonville where the old man bought a section ... My acquaintance with the Bulls was a neighborhood acquaintance and church membership. I have cradled (harvested grain) all day with Uncle Jason.
"I knew all about their helping the slaves. I know they did it and I know where they kept them. They stowed them in Clinton Chapel often -- to keep them safe. At that time the front part of the basement -- about one half was finished and we used to hold social meetings in there frequently. The back part was about four feet deep from the joist down, with a window at the back and a door in front, and there we stowed fuel and slaves. The church was built in about 1837 or '38. Before that time they were stored in barns.
"Frequently fugitives were directed to me for information, and though forbidden we gave them food."
Amason Webster died in 1900, seven years before the death of James Poindexter. Dr. Wilbur Siebert lived until 1961.
Many of the sites associated with the Underground Railroad are gone. The houses, barns and shops that concealed runaway slaves have been lost with the forces of growth and change in the city.
But the Clinton Chapel of 1838 still stands. The building has been added to from time to time and the old cemetery that once was near it no longer can be seen. But the original Clinton Chapel building is at 3100 N. High St. near the Walhalla Ravine. After long use as a church, the building served various purposes until it became the longtime home of the Southwick-Good Funeral Home.
Today, the building is empty and can be found on the Columbus Landmarks Foundation's list of Most Endangered Buildings.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.