From Kentucky, a careful observer can squint beyond the banks of the Ohio River and spot the village of Ripley, Ohio, and a lone house on the hill above.
Nearly 200 years ago, those traveling on the Underground Railroad would look to that village, that hill and the light from the lantern that the Rev. John Rankin hung in his front window, beckoning them across. It was a beacon of hope for a world without the perils of slavery.
Ripley, settled in 1804 — just a year after Ohio was granted statehood — was one of the state's most-active stations on the Underground Railroad. Its location along the river, proximity to nearby free Black settlements and the number of abolitionists living in town made it a prime location for freedom seekers to cross, according to historians.
Ripley's conductors were so adept that frustrated Kentucky slave owners, according to author and historian Henrietta Buckmaster, who often said those journeying north through Ripley “must have disappeared on an underground road.”
Experts estimate that Ohio had about 3,000 miles of routes, almost all of which crossed the Ohio River.
Ripley, however, stands out: It was a place where both Black and white residents worked together as abolitionists, moving those who made it across the river out of danger’s way.
Rankin, an early Ohio abolitionist, Presbyterian minister and architect of Ripley's Underground Railroad, built his home in 1828. It became one of the first stops along the network of conductors, where historians estimate that Rankin, his wife, Jean, and their 13 children personally assisted more than 2,000 enslaved people on their path to freedom.
From his perch, Rankin could keep an eye out for those crossing the river at night, keep watch for his fellow conductors and scour the town for any sign of slave catchers.
At the pulpit, Rankin exalted that "Certain Death is the penalty which the Almighty has attached to the crime of depriving an innocent person of his liberty."
Today, more than 150 years after Union soldiers told the last enslaved people living in Texas that the Emancipation Proclamation had set them free, some descendants of those freedom seekers and abolitionists still reside in the Ohio River Valley.
In a series of interviews over four days in April and May, the Dispatch, which like USA TODAY is a part of the USA TODAY Network, spoke with seven descendants of those who made the journey along the Underground Railroad from slavery to Ripley and those who helped light the way.
Their stories illuminate how the past and present are so intimately tied, and how these ancestors' legacies live on through their descendants today.
The Rev. James Settles (b. 1950)
Great-great grandson of Joseph Settles
Joseph Settles was an enslaved person living in Mays Lick, Kentucky, in the 1860s, working as a carriage driver for his enslaver, a circuit court judge. As a driver, he made contacts who helped him arrange his escape to freedom.
Joseph fled across the Ohio River in 1863 with his wife, brother-in-law and infant daughter. Once the family settled in Ripley, Joseph made arrangements with other conductors to take in his friends. Joseph returned to Kentucky four days later to help eight other people from his enslaver’s farm across the river.
He spent much of the rest of his life helping others like him make their way north. He also served in the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry in the Civil War. Joseph helped build Ripley’s Beebe Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
James, the great-great-grandson of Joseph Settles, served as pastor for 24 years until his retirement in September 2020.
The following is a recording from the descendant of a freedom seeker and/or abolitionist who made the journey through, or assisted folks along, the Underground Railroad, from slavery to liberation in Ripley, Ohio.
Expand the full transcript of James Settles' audio
"It was the church of my childhood. Then growing up in that church, knowing that my ancestors were founding members of that congregation, knowing that some of the logs that still hold it together came from property that one of my great-grandfathers lived on, and seeing the work that my father did around the church to help maintain it. I have roots there other than spiritual roots. I have physical roots.
And if we look back through history, and we actually dig all the history up, we see that the struggle has always been going on. This is nothing new. The demonstrations are not new. People have been dying for this cause of equality since slavery was outlawed. Slavery has a history that goes back to nearly the beginning of time. How do we stop it? I don't know. But you keep saying that it's not okay.
Sometimes some of our rights in this nation are going to clash. The right of me to not participate in something because of my religious beliefs may have to take precedence over the rights of someone else to live a different lifestyle than what I do. But does that mean that that person should be chastised? No. Does it mean that I should be chastised? No. We need to find a way where we both can exercise our rights and walk away unbloodied.”
Amber Dudley (b. 1974)
Great-great granddaughter of Lindsey Jackson and great-great grandniece of Polly Jackson
Siblings Lindsey and Polly Jackson were born in Virginia and came to Ohio with their family in the mid-1840s as free Black abolitionists. The Jacksons, especially Polly, became key figures in Ripley's Underground Railroad network. Lindsey worked for Rankin as a farmhand and joined his inner circle of conductors assisting folks across the Ohio River.
Polly, Lindsey’s oldest sister, was also a conductor. She settled near Ripley and kept a small farm where she hosted freedom seekers in her house and helped direct them on their way if they chose to continue their journey. Polly was known to carry a butcher knife in her apron and keep a kettle of hot water on the stove to fend off slave catchers who came to town.
Amber was born in Ripley, then moved to Columbus to attend college and start her family before moving back to Ripley.
Expand the full transcript of Amber Dudley's audio
“It's good to know your family history. I wish I knew more, and knew detail after detail after detail. I wish that there was still a 100-year-old aunt that could tell me … I would just sit at her feet and listen to stories.
The norm is not to move away, go to college and then move back. A lot of people are here and have been here, and when I see the Confederate flags on cars or in town they might not be educated. You know, you could brainwash somebody and tell them well, this is how things are and Blacks are inferior and that is your history: the Confederate flag. And I'm like, but you live in Ohio. How's that your history? Like you're not down South.
So I think that's, that's the culture of it to me. I don't think I let it bother me as much as if they were burning a cross in their yard. To each his own, if that's your opinion that you want to fly a Confederate flag and I want to fly one that says Black Lives Matters then by all means if you don't bother mine, I'm not gonna bother yours.”
Beth Robinson (b. 1963)
Great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Nathaniel Collins
Nathaniel Collins and his family were conductors on Ripley’s Underground Railroad network. The Collins family lived in a home along Ripley’s Front Street, which sits along the Ohio River, just down the street from fellow abolitionist Dr. Alexander Campbell. Nathaniel was a carpenter by trade, specializing in coffins and cabinets. The family would often hide freedom seekers in the coffins they made to transport them from one stop to another.
Nathaniel had at least 10 children, all of whom were actively involved on the Underground Railroad. His sons –– Theodore, Thomas and James –– took up Nathaniel’s abolitionist work after his death in 1831. His five daughters were also active members of Ripley’s Anti-Slavery Society. Nathaniel was also the first mayor of Ripley and a founding member of the village’s Presbyterian Church.
Beth, who now lives in Cincinnati, grew up visiting Ripley as a child. She hopes to one day buy Nathaniel's original home along Front Street.
Expand the full transcript of Beth Robinson's audio
"It seems to me they were ordinary citizens that stood up for something that they felt that was wrong, and they did what maybe a lot of us wouldn't have the courage to do. They risked their lives for what they believed in. It's a lot of pride and some amazement that they did that.
They were on the right side of history. And their convictions, I guess, fueled that belief and taking those risks. You know, I like to think I would do that. But it's a tall order to go against your neighbors and not knowing if someone is going to turn you in.
I guess from my perspective it gives them importance, because you really owe where you are in life to the sacrifices and journeys that your ancestors made.
And the history of our country is a forward movement in most cases. Generations move the next generation forward and work and sacrifice, so their children and grandchildren can have a better life. Why wouldn't you honor that and tell those stories?”
Robert Campbell (b. 1942)
Great-great-great grandson of Dr. Alexander Campbell
Alexander Campbell, considered Ohio’s first abolitionist, was a physician who migrated to Ripley from Kentucky in 1804. He was also one of the state’s first senators, a postmaster, a mayor and a local business owner.
Alexander built homes along Ripley’s Front Street to help move and hide freedom seekers. His work predated that of John Rankin and John Parker, who made Ripley a key stopping point on the Underground Railroad.
He aided both Rankin and Parker in their abolitionist work and acted as something of a consultant, given his history and deep ties to anti-slavery societies in the area. Alexander died in 1857, three years before the Civil War began.
Robert lives on his family's farm just outside of Ripley with his wife, Betty, a local historian who operates the John Rankin House historical site.
Expand the full transcript of Robert Campbell's audio
"Alexander was of Scotch descendance. Very independent minded. He has a tendency to march to his own drummer. Very much believed that another human being shouldn't own another human being.
We all make mistakes, but you want learn by them. And you better know your past history, so you don't make the same mistakes. And family history is just as like Ohio's history, that's just part of living.
And it was the right time for the right people to be here. We were fortunate enough to have an ancestor who was involved in this. He was very early. His beliefs were very, very profound and he marched to them. And you can't say that today. There's just something about Ripley for us. It's Ripley ... and that old Ohio River out there.”
Peggy Mills Warner (b. 1947)
Great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Betty Toler
Betty Toler was a founder of the Gist Settlement, a community of freed Blacks north of Ripley that began in 1819. After the death of Virginia plantation owner Samuel Gist, the enslaved people on his land were freed in his will. The sale of Gist’s land in Virginia purchased about 2,000 acres of land in Ohio's Adams, Brown and Highland counties, where these settlements existed into the mid-20th century.
A free Black settlement was a refuge for those running for freedom. They could use the community as a hideout from enslavers and slave catchers. The Brown County Gist settlements were the largest free Black communities in the region, which greatly increased Underground Railroad traffic through Ripley. Residents of these communities sacrificed their own comfort and safety so that other enslaved people might share their same fate.
Peggy lived in her family's home on the Eagle Township Gist Settlement until early 2020. She sold the house but kept the surrounding lands to one day pass down to her grandchildren. Peggy lives in nearby Mason, Ohio.
Expand the full transcript of Peggy Mills Warner's audio
“Imagine those slaves who they gathered around and told them, 'Well, next week, we're going to start going to Ohio, because you're free.’ And in 1819? That is 40 years before the Civil War. There's a certain amount of pride to knowing that you really could have been left in Virginia, but you were brought to Ohio and given something.
Until you know where you come from, you don't have a real straight path to where you're going. It's like an awakening is happening. And I'm anxious to see how far it's going to go. And it's caused people to see through a lens of what happened back in the '50s, which they had really kind of put under the bed. Now they're seeing it for what it was.
This story is there. And we can't control how people react to it. There may be good reactions, there may be poor reactions, but the story is what it is. And it needs to stand and be said. We can't be silent unless we're silenced. And heaven forbid that we would be silenced.”
Randy Sroufe (b. 1960)
Great-grandson of Louis Portio Sroufe
Louis Portio Sroufe’s journey to freedom is lost partly to history. There are two possible stories about how Louis, who was just a baby when he left Kentucky, found freedom in Ripley.
The first story, recorded in “His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad," tells that Ripley abolitionist John Parker helping Louis’ parents planned an escape across the Ohio River to freedom. Sebastian Sroufe, their enslaver, was suspicious that the family may make a run for Ripley, so he kept young Louis in his bedroom that night. An undeterred Parker took Louis from the bedroom and the family made it safely to Ripley.
The other story is that Louis’ parents had made it to Ripley without him and they went to Parker to ask him to go back to the Sroufe farm to get their baby. Beyond Parker’s account of the Sroufe family, there are few records that can confirm that Louis was truly the baby rescued from Sebastian Sroufe’s bedroom that night.
On his Social Security application, Louis Sroufe’s mother was listed as Celia Brooks and his father was listed as James K. Sroufe, Sebastian’s son. Celia’s husband was not Louis’ biological father and his name is unknown. Census records show that Louis was born in Dover, Kentucky, on Feb. 3, 1864. Louis died in 1951 and is buried in Ripley.
Randy was born and grew up in Ripley, then moved to Cincinnati, where he raised his family.
Expand the full transcript of Randy Sroufe's audio
"So, the Sroufe baby involved in that John Parker story could, or could not be, my ancestor. But from a Black person's standpoint, you're not going to know 100%.
It's frustrating that white people can trace their ancestors all the way back. But we're lucky to get to my great-grandfather. But, you don't dwell on the things you don't know and things that are out of your control.
I knew something was different, and I can't even remember how old I was, is when we couldn't go to the swimming pool. It was whites only. And that's when we realized that ... oh, so color does make a difference. And it wasn't something that we labored about you accepted it because it wasn't gonna do anything.
I never had like an identity crisis of being Black, half-Black, half-white, this quarter Black ... It doesn't impact me that I don't know. It doesn't push me to try to find even more information, because I'm livin' now.”
Marietha Bosley (b. 1980)
Great-great-great-granddaughter of Arnold Gragston
Arnold Gragston was an enslaved man living on the Jack Tabb plantation in Mason County, Kentucky. Tabb allowed Arnold and others on his plantation to visit nearby farms. It was on one such outing that Arnold received his first offer to become an Underground Railroad conductor when an older woman asked him to take a young girl across the Ohio River to Ripley.
For the next four years, Arnold would make multiple trips a month from Dover, Kentucky, to Ripley, rowing upwards of 300 freedom seekers across to Ohio, even as he remained enslaved. His days as a conductor ended in 1864 after he was pursued by slave patrollers upon returning from a trip to Ripley. Arnold hid in the woods and farm fields for weeks.
Arnold eventually reconnected with his wife and the pair made a run for Ripley. They settled in Detroit, had 10 children and 31 grandchildren. Arnold returned to Ripley later in life before he died in 1938.
Marietha spent summers as a child in Ripley visiting her grandmother, Arnold's great-granddaughter. Marietha, a nursing student, lives in Canal Winchester, Ohio.
Expand the full transcript of Marietha Bosley's audio
"I'm doing things in their wildest dreams. Everything I do in life … learning, being able to take advantage of being able to learn. I know Arnold Gragston, for example, didn't have that option. He didn't have that option to go to school. I have the option to go to school. But yet, he made a name for himself, just all by helping people.
He was a man of tenacity, spirit and love. And I say that it’s because you have to be tenacious to ferry slaves across the Ohio River, and go back into slavery yourself. You have to have love for people to ferry slaves across and then go back into slavery yourself. He was driven to do it.
When I look in the mirror at myself, I see them. What I do in this world is because of them. There's things that I'm doing in this world that they couldn't do. So, that's why I try to do everything in my power to make them proud.
It's an honor to them. You were here, and I'm a part of you. You didn't know anything about me. You died before I was born. But your bloodline runs through me. Your spirit runs through me."
About the project
The photographic process
These images were made using a dry-plate collodion, recreating a photographic process used in the late 19th century. Each image was made on an aluminum plate hand-coated with a photo-reactive gelatin emulsion of silver halide that was then dried and stored until exposure.
Participants were photographed over four days in April and May. A 4x5 field camera was used to make each image, and each photograph took about three minutes to properly focus and then expose. Once exposed, each plate was developed, washed and dried in a darkroom. After development, a digital camera was used to make an electronic copy of the resulting physical ferrotype. The original plates were given to each participant.
The interview and research process
Participants were interviewed and recorded in Ripley, Cincinnati and Canal Winchester. The interviews were then edited and condensed into the quoted text and the accompanying audio on Dispatch.com.
In addition to first-person accounts, reporting for this project pulled from a number of sources. They include: "Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad" by Ann Hagedorn; the U.S. National Parks Service's Network to Freedom resources; the National Humanities Center; U.S. Census records, librarians and historians familiar with the region; and clips from local newspapers in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.
Ann Hagedorn also assisted in sourcing and lodging. Historians Betty Campbell, Caroline Miller and librarian Alison Gibson provided additional historical context and participants' contact information.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Legacy of Ohio's abolitionists shared through their descendants