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'They had to risk everything': Kentucky's links to the Underground Railroad

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Posted at 5:22 PM, Jul 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-08 19:31:00-04

(LEX 18) — Through the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was a pathway to freedom for those held as slaves.

Kentucky was the last slave state people had to pass through in their race to freedom.

The story of the Underground Railroad is more than a story of survival for the men and women who fled north. They weren't satisfied with merely living. They were determined to live free.

Along Kentucky's northeast banks of the Ohio River, the town of Maysville is proud of its rich history, well-documented from the revolution to today. But one of the town's most compelling periods had to be kept quiet at the time.

"The Southern-escaping slave knew that there were neutrality spots in Kentucky and there were people who were gonna help them, and if they could find their path through that, they would get to the river," said Marla Toncray, Exhibit Creator at the Maysville's Gateway Museum.

Maysville's most significant secret hiding place was the Bierbower House.

"The Bierbowers was a very industrial family," said Toncray. "They owned a lot of land, a lot of businesses, so they had the means to do it, money-wise. So they could harbor the African Americans as they made their trek across the Ohio River."

It's easy to imagine a runaway slave standing in Maysville looking over the Ohio River at what was their promised land.

"It was a separating line," she said. "You knew if you could get to Ohio, you could be free, you would stand a better chance."

"They were that close; they could see it," said historian Ron Bailey. "But they had to risk everything and also the ones helping them had a big risk."

Local historians at Maysville's Gateway Museum discuss the courage it took for white landowners to harbor and feed black men, women, and children on their secret journey to the north. They put everything they owned - and even their lives - on the line.

"It was something that their whole being must have just grasped to and said, 'this is wrong and I can't allow this to happen,'" said Toncray.

The National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati tells the history of the slaves' pathway to freedom. Kentucky's role is noted here, including one of the museum's most impactful exhibits.

"This is an actual slave pen that was found in Mason County," said Christopher Miller, Senior Director of Education and Community Development. "Inside these walls, men and women were housed until the trader decided to haul them farther south to get top dollar."

It could be that kind of situation where a slave might break free with only that secret network to help them stay free.

"For those individuals to be active in the work of the Underground Railroad, they gotta be moved by a spirit beyond themselves," said Miller. "That's the spirit of freedom."

The value of freedom. Thinking beyond ourselves. Lessons from the Underground Railroad that have a place today.

"If we don't understand the responsibility we have to one another, that we all have equal freedom, then we won't survive."