I’d heard about Joan Southgate’s walk long before I finally found her book, In Their Path: A Grandmother’s 519-mile Underground Railroad Walk (written with co-author Fran Stewart). The distance involved just staggered me. Starting in Ripley, Ohio, the then 73-year-old grandma’s journey took her through the Buckeye State, Pennsylvania, New York and Canada.
The authors offer a part-memoir, part-history and part-travel book. I had no idea of the extent of Ohio’s connection to the Underground Railroad, and Southgate made me want to follow her path (though I will probably spend more time in the car than she did). I learned so much about specific individuals involved in the Underground Railroad, mostly black and some white, and this is what I think many of us need: a reminder that this was not just a concept and not just Harriet Tubman. These were human beings taking remarkable risks for freedom, something so many of us take for granted.
I also appreciated the tone of Southgate’s presentation of her walk. She’s not afraid to portray herself as grumpy, cranky or even in pain. Her humor and resolve make the book so very real. She was, it seemed to me, just doing something she thought was right and essential. She seemed particularly driven by her sense of purpose. I have admired her since I first heard of the walk, and now I have even more reasons to do so.
I wholeheartedly support the preservation of all of the nooks and crannies and corners and houses and barns involved in the Underground Railroad. The stories must be told. Still, I wonder if we might be more creative about what to do with them. Those referenced in this book tended to want all of them to become museums, and that makes me concerned about their longevity. It’s tough to sustain a museum these days. Perhaps some could emulate the Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago and become both museums and centers of community work.
At the end of the narration about a particular area Southgate traversed, you will see specific information about how to visit the places she describes. Since the book was published in 2004, it’s worth calling ahead to make sure the details are still current.
I’m going to create a new genre in honor of this book: a Gateway Book, one that makes you want to read more, do more, learn more and see more. This book does all of that.
A great companion for In Their Path is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
Southgate founded Restore Cleveland Hope, which is working to raise funds for the restoration of the Cozad-Bates House (11508 Mayfield Road), a pre-Civil War home in University Circle connected to the abolitionist movement, and turn it into an Underground Railroad resource center. “Hope” was Cleveland’s Underground Railroad code name.
Since 2003, Southgate and other community activists have been working to make this education center, which will celebrate Cleveland’s antislavery past, into a reality. In 2009, she went on another walk (250 miles from Canada to Cleveland) as a fundraiser and awareness campaign for the home.
APRIL 16 | Joan Southgate is the keynote speaker at the Eliza Bryant Village Annual Meeting and Reception. Follow the link to secure free tickets.
May 5 | The fifth annual Station Hope, held at Cleveland’s first authenticated Underground Railroad site (St. John’s Church, 2600 Church Ave.), will celebrate the city’s social justice history. The evening also will explore contemporary struggles for freedom and equity. It will feature 250 artists performing theatre, music, storytelling and dance.
FEATURE IMAGE CREDIT: Cozad-Bates House – by Christopher Busta-Peck