Thirty years of research has shown me that in most cases, wherever there was an African Methodist Epispocal church before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. From the late-18th-century inception of the church in Philadelphia under Richard Allen, it participated with others in protecting escaping slaves from the South. The church's efforts in this direction followed the geographical spread of its congregations around the country.
Allen and others who followed him--such as Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne, who later served as the president of Wilberforce University--gave their services widely, both literally and figuratively, because many of them served as circuit riders. As they moved from one church to another, they spread the word of the Underground Railroad; they were circuit liders not only of the churches, but also of the antislavery movement.
Wherever they traveled, they learned about the various communities, the communities' protectors and the communities' menaces: slave hunters and the like.
In the time of slavery, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was unique--a nationwide autonomous African-American institution, exclusively conceived, birthed and raised by and within the black community. And it was this church that founded and led Wilberforce University, which from its inception in Xenia, Ohio, was an important station on the Underground Railroad in the Midwest. Although the black community there was small, it was committed to protecting its African-American brothers and sisters who had fled from the South.
Wilberforce University's role was also critical to the black community in another sense. As far back as the Free African Society, which was founded in the 1790s, our community had as one of its central aims the establishment of educational facilities for African Americans. When Wilberforce was established, the center of this driving force, this urge toward education, was transferred from Philadelphia and New York to Ohio. Of course, there were Lincoln and Cheyney universities in Pennsylvania and Oberlin in Ohio, all of which served blacks, but Wilberforce--with Payne and other highly educated and impressive people--was a fully African-American enteprise, a unique statement of black determination and capacity. This distinction is significant, and it was certainly seen so by our ancestors.
The farmhouses, fields and rural towns of Greene County, Ohio, that once offered refuge to fugitive slaves have long since been dramatically transformed. Nevertheless, Wilberforce University still stands proudly, and so do the remains of many of Greene County's Underground Railroad stations. Today, visitors to the area not only can take a guided tour of the old Underground Railroad; they can also wander through museums, walk through historic mills, take part in cultural festivals, witness a re-enacted clash between Ohio's first settlers and the Shawnee Indians they displaced, and examine the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar--the first African-American poet to achieve national prominence.
The Greene County Underground Railroad Tour is a guided one--you will be hard pressed to find the old stations on your own, as even those houses that still stand lack historical markers describing their 19th-century roles. Among the places highlighted on the tour are: the Rev. Samuel Wilson House (site of an Ohio Anti-Slavery Society convention in the early 1830s), the Rev. Jones Farm (Jones, Wilberforce University's fourth president, hid runaways in a barn that had a false-floored hayloft), the Mitchell House (with three stairways capable of concealing runaways), the Hilltop Road House (a pantry floor lifted out to reveal an underground room), and the Nosker Residence (a trapdoor revealed steps leading to a tunnel that connected to a small cave in the front yard).
The tour is still a work in progress. For information on times, duration and fees, call either the Greene County Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 733-9109, or the National Afro-American Museum, (800) BLK-HIST.
Related to this tour is the Col. Charles Young House. Although in slavery days runaways hid in its cellar and its barn, the house transcends the Underground Railroad, for it was later the home of America's leading black soldier, a man who served his country in an exemplary fashion and, in return, saw his chance for senior field command destroyed exclusively on racial grounds.
As the United States entered World War I, it had one black graduate of West Point as a field officer. Lt. Col. Charles Young spoke Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and German; had secured recognition for his successful training, organizing and disciplining efforts of the raw recruits of the 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the earlier Spanish-American War; and was a combat veteran of Pershing's expedition into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa, Scheduled to assume command of the renowned 10th Cavalry (which, excepting its officers, was all-black), Young saw his career crushed by President Woodrow Wilson's direct and personal intervention. When a white officer of the 10th expressed his dislike of taking orders from a black man, Secretary of War Newton Baker first thought he should "either do his duty or resign." But Wilson, alerted to the issue by a Mississippi senator, presidentially "suggested" to Newton that the white officer be transferred to another unit. Soon other politicians followed suit, and Baker had Young placed on the retired list on medical grounds. In response, Young rode on horseback 500 miles from Wilberforce, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., to establish that he was not medically unfit for service. Perhaps it is indeed better to travel than arrive, for Young's ride was in vain. He could lead black troops in action, but not white troops to the mess hall, and certainly he could not order a white officer and gentleman to do an officer's duty. Not until five days before the signing of the armistice was Young readmitted to the service and placed in command of a training camp in Indiana.
Today, the Col. Charles Young House in Wilberforce is not open to the public; however, efforts are under way to transform it into a museum celebrating not only Young's life, but also the wider African-American contribution to America's military strength.
While in Wilberforce, don't miss the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, located on the original grounds of Wilberforce University. African-American life in the two decades between the end of World War II and the passage of the Voting Rights Act is the theme of the museum's permanent exhibit, "From Victory to Freedom." Popular culture is the crux of the exhibit, with photographs and artifacts highlighting the worlds of black business, education, religion, fashion and music. The museum also mounts temporary exhibits profiling African-American artists, history, political activists and scholars, and it offers a venue for lectures, films and workshops on themes that explore black America.
Another way to explore black America is to stop by nearby Wilberforce University, whose archives and occasional exhibits testify to an autonomous black initiative dating back to antebellum times. Look in particular for any exhibit that examines the exemplary life of Daniel Alexander Payne (1811-1893). This freeborn South Carolinian spoke Latin, Greek and French, guided the most outstanding school for black children in his home state (until the state in 1834 passed a law forbidding African Americans to be taught to read and write) and led the African Methodist Episcopal Church to purchase Wilberforce University, whose president he was for 13 years.
Greene County, which lies but 50 miles north of Cincinnati, has much to offer beyond its black heritage. Families in search of a good time (with just the slightest soupcon of history thrown in) will enjoy both Clifton Mill and the Blue Jacket Drama. Historic Clifton Mill dates back to 1802 and, at six stories, was then the largest grist mill in existence. Even today it is quite a sight, the more so as it overlooks Clifton Gorge. It is also quite a sound--the gentle creaking of the mill wheel and the gurgle of water over the spillway soothe the soul. The gift shop offers antiques and old-fashioned candy and toys; the restaurant offers whole-grain bread, homemade pies and corn bread, and pancakes--all made from grain ground on the premises. Visitors who arrive during the Christmas season receive an added bonus: the country's largest collection of Santa Clauses (2,000 of them), a 300-foot waterfall of lights, a life-size manger scene, and the best Christmas light display in the entire country, with a quarter of a million lights blazing.
In Xenia, the Blue Jacket Drama entices visitors with a compelling re-creation of the Indian-settler conflict that transformed the old Northwest Territory from Eden into a series of congressional districts, in the process displacing the Shawnee, Miami, Delaware and other native peoples. It also introduces visitors to one of the most unusual Indian war leaders of the day, Blue Jacket--a white man who not only captured Daniel Boone, but who had an African American as one of his chief aides. Assisted by a runaway slave named Caesar, whose death in battle some years later would leave its trace in the naming of Caesar's Creek, Blue Jacket and the various septs (bands) of Shawnee fought to keep ohio red.
Today, on the ground crossed by Caesar's Creek, 50 actors armed with flintlocks and flaming arrows take part in the Blue Jacket Drama, re-enacting the struggle to keep lacrosse America's national pastime and entertaining all of those fortunate enough to be in Greene County to see it.
Just across the county line from all these attractions lies Dayton, Ohio. Here the visitor will find the Paul Laurence Dunbar House, which alone repays the trip to a city that also offers the U.S. Air Force Museum (with an excellent permanent exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen), the Dayton Art Institute (with a small but interesting selection of West African art), and the home of the Wright brothers, who gave the world the gift of flight.
Born in Ohio to a father who had escaped slavery in Kentucky and fled to Canada before returning to the United States to serve in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment and to a mother who had been enslaved in the Deep South, Paul Laurence Dunbar was the star of his high school's debating team, the president of its literary society, the editor of its newspaper and its sole African-American student.
At age 21, with borrowed money, Dunbar published his first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy--which (like its immediate successor) was articulated in a dialect that he learned from his mother. The 1896 rave review of Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors, by William Howells, dean of American literary critics, made the poet's career. Howells' endorsement of "Paul Dunbar ... the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically," enabled the poet to find a wide (white) audience, with the result that he became and remained until his early death, at 34, one of America's most famous men of letters. To his intense dissatisfaction, however, he also became and remained a captive of his dialect voice, despite publishing several novels, a collection of magazine articles, librettos and scripts, and collections of "straight" poetry. Dunbar's prolific writing (which left little time for relaxation), the failure of his marriage, tuberculosis, alcoholism and his lament that "I'm tired of dialect but the magazines aren't" drove him into an early grave.
Today, visitors to the Paul Laurence Dunbar House, which was paid for with the profits of his third book of poetry, see his home virtually as he left it, complete with his desk, typewriter, books, personal belongings-including the ceremonial sword presented to him by President Roosevelt--and many of the original manuscripts of his poems.
Visitors to Dayton fortunate enough to be in town July 14-16, 1995, get an added bonus: the Dayton Black Cultural Festival. A cornucopia of African and African-American visual and performing arts, this year's event offers more than 50 performances on five stages and features jazz, blues, R&B, reggae, gospel and Top 40 music; traditional African dance and drumming; and storytelling.