Portsmouth was a place of freedom for slaves escaping across the Ohio River. The slaves that were fortunate enough to escape needed to shelter in a safe place – quickly. They would need assistance and there were those in the North that were part of the Abolitionist Movement. The abolitionist movement was the social and political effort to end slavery everywhere. Fueled in part by religious fervor, the movement was led by people like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and John Brown. Up and down the Ohio River there were those who devoted life and limb to help runaway slaves. The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by African-American slaves to escape into the Free States and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. A hotbed of activity was about 59 miles west of Portsmouth in Ripley. That is where Reverend John Rankin had a network perfected to help runaways.
The slaves always had hope that someday they would shake off the shackles of slavery and make it to freedom. With that in mind they would compose their own songs of hope. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” describing their plight was penned in 1840, by Wallace Willis, a Black slave of a Choctaw Indian. Known as “Uncle Wallace,” he was inspired to write this well-known American hymn by his current home near Oklahoma City. Willis was also a servant at Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school for boys in Choctaw County. (According to the Library of Congress) – You can almost feel the sorrow and lonesomeness of these gentle words – “Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home, Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan and what did I see coming for to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home. If you get there before I do, Coming for to carry me home, Tell all my friends that I’m coming, too, Coming for to carry me home.” (Wallace Willis)
As you cross the bridge from Kentucky to Ohio you will move toward – Chillicothe and Second Street – you will notice as you bear right a Historical Plaque that reads – “The Ohio River was a formidable obstacle for escaping slaves. Many runaways from Kentucky were aided by James Poindexter, an African – American barber and local resident, who picked up fugitives in Kentucky and rowed them across the Ohio River to Portsmouth. After arriving on the Ohio side, they were sometimes hidden by another man of color John Adams; in his home on Chillicothe St. near Eleventh St. Riverboat captain William McClain, whose principal route was between Cincinnati and Portsmouth, picked up runaways on the Kentucky side of the river and delivered them safely to the Portsmouth station of Joseph Ashton and Milton Kennedy or northeast to J.J. Minor in South Webster. Because slave catchers also crossed the Ohio River at this place, runaway slaves more often than not were taken as swiftly as possible to the next station north of town. The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad, but a system of loosely connected safe havens where those escaping the brutal conditions of slavery were sheltered, fed, clothed, nursed, concealed, disguised, and instructed during their journey to freedom. Although this movement was one of America’s greatest social, moral, and humanitarian endeavors, the details about it were often cloaked in secrecy to protect those involved from retribution of civil law and slave-catchers. Ohio’s history has been permanently shaped by the thousands of runaway slaves passing through or finding permanent residence in this state.” (Composed and Erected through the – Co-Sponsorship of ODOT and Friends of Freedom Society)
Bob Boldman is a local historian. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org