Cleveland Inspired Hope on the Underground Railroad

Many people are unaware of Cleveland’s role in the Underground Railroad. Code named “Hope,” Cleveland was a pivotal stop for freedom seekers before they hopped on a boat to “God Be Praised!” (Port Stanley, Ontario) — located within the safe borders of “Heaven” (Canada) where freedom at long last could be achieved. 

This history will come to light with the opening of the Cozad-Bates Interpretive Center. Rescued from dilapidation and near demolition, the Cozad-Bates house — the only pre-Civil War home remaining in University Circle — will soon welcome visitors to learn about the region’s role in antislavery activism, with exhibits linking our history to our present day situation.

Yablonsky explains that Cleveland underground railroad history showcased in the museum is a story “so critical in this time, a story of freedom seekers themselves that had incredible bravery and courage that passed through our community on their way to freedom, and then our community members that stood up, broke the law in order to do what they felt was morally right in assisting these freedom seekers and taking action against slavery.”

The Cozads built the oldest section of the house in 1853. While the Cozad family were abolitionists, it’s unknown whether the house actually was a Cleveland stop on the Underground Railroad. Yet, with the help of local sponsors, University Circle Inc. was given the opportunity to capture and rekindle the humanitarian legacy of the Cozad family. 

Photo by Artography Studios and Press, Lauren R. Pacini, Photographer. All rights reserved.

“We were thrilled to be able to share a creative place that shares this story in University Circle — really the heart of our community’s cultural district,” says Elise Yablonsky, planning director at University Circle Inc., which helped transform the house into a museum.

The Cozad-Bates Interpretive Center will feature a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces. On the inside, the house will consist of three distinct spaces, “each with its own story and purpose,” according to University Circle Inc.’s website. One wing will feature exhibits that “set both the national and local context for slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.” 

Photo by Artography Studios and Press, Lauren R. Pacini, Photographer. All rights reserved.

Another wing will highlight “stories of local anti-slavery activists and freedom seekers,” such as Sarah Lucy Bagby Johnson, who is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. As Yablonsky explains, Johnson is thought to be “the last freedom seeker returned to slavery prior to the Civil War.”

Born in Virginia, 18-year-old Sarah was able to escape north while her owner was away in the Minnesota fall of 1860. She ran alongside the Ohio River, guided by the Underground Railroad until she stepped on free ground in Beaver, Pennsylvania. Courageous and full of hope, Sarah Lucy Bagby eventually made her way to Cleveland, Ohio, where she started a new life as a domestic servant. 

On January 19, 1861, Sarah’s freedom was shattered. Due to the Fugitive Slave Act, Sarah’s previous owner was allowed into Cleveland to reclaim and enslave her — despite the efforts of abolitionists to buy Sarah’s freedom. Held in Cleveland, Johnson’s case and the ways it was covered in the media are examined in the exhibit. 

Sarah Johnson, Cleveland Underground Railroad anti-slavery activist
Sarah Lucy Bagby Johnson

Yablonsky describes how the media covered Johnson’s situation in varied ways: “Some media outlets were celebrating that she was returned to slavery and that federal law was upheld, hoping that by following federal law, Cleveland was helping to sustain the union and preserve the union, that the union needed to be preserved at all costs.”

Other media outlets, Yablonsky elaborates, expressed the views held by anti-slavery activists and abolutionists that “it didn’t matter what the federal law was. There was a higher moral law that should be held and followed more closely. That it was a huge loss to send her back to slavery and to not follow that higher law.” 

The next wing will “connect past to present,” explaining the impacts of slavery still felt today, exploring the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and examining topics such as mass incarceration. 

The outdoor space will feature an interpretative walkway that highlights people and places on the Underground Railroad and in our own city of “Hope,” as well as a performance space for community events, such as the Restore Cleveland Hope Freedom Festival.

“We like to describe it as a small space that works very hard,” says Yablonsky. “That’s one of the key things that we wanted to make sure to do — to connect past to present and really give that past meaning through that connection.”

The center hopes to open next spring or whenever the threat of COVID-19 has eased to allow for people to gather in small spaces. A virtual open house was filmed via Facebook Live and can be found on University Circle Inc.’s Facebook page.

The Cozad-Bates Interpretive Center was created with the help of University Circle Inc., the Western Reserve Historical Society, the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Restoration Society, Cleveland Council Member Kevin Conwell, and Restore Cleveland Hope—whose founder, Joan Southgate, walked over 500 miles to bring awareness to the plight of freedom seekers.

Yablonsky explains that a key theme of the Cozad-Bates Interpretive Center is that visitors come away with an understanding of “the idea of individual activism — that in so many cases there were individuals that made decisions to take action” because “certainly that is as important today as it was then.”

She couldn’t be more right.

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