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New book details Ohio's central role in the Underground Railroad

Kathy Schulz is a former Ohioan who has just published a book called "The Underground Railroad in Ohio." It tells the story of how Ohio grew as a slavery-free state and the important role it played in helping Black people escape slavery in the South.

Jerry Kenney: Thanks for joining us today. And maybe tell us a little bit about your life and particularly about life as a former college librarian turned historian.

Kathy Schulz: I always correct people, Jerry, when they call me an historian, because technically I'm not. And that's both a good and bad thing. The good thing is it gives me freedom to do some things and do some storytelling that historians have to be more careful about. They meet certain standards and document things in a certain way, and I'm a little bit more of a storyteller. And maybe that relates to my life and books being a librarian. I was at Wittenberg University, and I enjoyed that work very much.

It happens that one of the key stories in my book I discovered in Wittenberg Library Archives on an old, wrinkled sheet of paper. We were in the midst of automating and moving to new ways of doing things, but I found my best story on an old crummy sheet of paper in library archives down in the basement. And that is the story of Addison White that took place not in Yellow Springs, but in Champaign County and Springfield.

I saw it as a key story of the book. Addison White was an enslaved person in Kentucky. He needed to get away to save himself. He was mistreated. He had worked in it. He had been a salt maker in Kentucky, but he got across the Ohio River and came up probably through Yellow Springs and continued north, ended up at the home of Udney Hyde in Mechanicsburg. The plan was for Addison to stay only a few days because that was what you normally did. You didn't want to stay too long in one place, which could be dangerous.

But in the few days Addison, the freedom seeker, was there, Udney Hyde hurt his leg very badly, and then Addison White said, "Well, I'm not going to Canada. I don't want to go north. Look at you. You need help. Who's going to pick your corn? Who's going to do this blacksmith work? I will just stay here and help you." Well, Udney, after some initial reluctance, agreed and then began paying Addison, who stayed with him for an entire nine months. The town adopts Addison and protects him. The federal marshals eventually come — they've gotten a tip, and they want to come pick him up, but the town forms a pitchfork carrying mob and drives them away. And there's a lot more heroics that are laid out in the book.

JK: It's a wonderful chapter to start the book. And your summation at the end about Addison being a salt maker. There's a lot of emotion in that as well.

KS: Right. I tried to look at the human side of things. Addison's left his wife and children when he had to leave Kentucky, and in the Udney Hyde home, the wife had recently died. So, there is sadness in these people, I believe, and they probably helped each other heal. Addison White the freedom seeker fit into that family and helped them, and they all reach a good end eventually. But coming to freedom out of slavery, there was a downside of leaving your family and some of the struggles and challenges you had. And that chapter does, I think, illuminate that a bit.

JK: I found it interesting that in the end she decided not to follow him north.

KS: His wife chose not to come to Ohio, and it turns out her choice might have been justified because they do run into a lot of trouble. Addison runs into a lot of trouble in Ohio. I don't know that much about his first wife, his Kentucky wife I know more about. He had two later wives, and some people even say three later wives. But so, he ends up married to the wonderful Amanda Barrow, who was about 20 years younger. And she is a big part of how we know his story. She spread it to her children and grandchildren and friends, and she helped us learn the story of Addison White.

JK: Well, there's certainly a great deal of history on the Underground Railroad in your book, but you also very neatly, I think, provide insight into how Ohio became the main stage for that enterprise — tracing its history, the people who settled here and the attitudes they brought with them from, say, Pennsylvania versus the Virginia settlements.

KS: Yes, I go into Ohio history a lot and I'm recently returned from a book tour in Ohio. People found that interesting. I was afraid I might bore them with it, but they were actually very fascinated to understand how Ohio had been settled. People from Pennsylvania, people from New England, people from Virginia, and the attitudes people brought and including the attitudes of the military veterans of the American Revolution, who quite likely fought with African Americans. Because unlike what we learned when we were little in school, there were a good number of African Americans who were part of our forces in the American Revolution. So Black and white men learned to work together partly through that.

I'm going to jump back to the Addison White story just very quickly. I forgot to say, right there in Yellow Springs, your Mad River Theater has produced the play, "Freedom Flight." Chris Westhoff and Daniel Carleton was the playwright. But John Booth, one of your Yellow Springs residents, made sure that I was ... I kind of got to consult on that play, which was a great deal of fun for me. So, the story may be known now in Yellow Springs, but the Addison White story is not known as well as it should be around Ohio.

But yes, Ohio has a fascinating history that basically led to an anti-slavery state. And they also Ohio sat right across the river from Kentucky, which became, sadly, kind of the go to place to export enslaved people down into the cotton fields. So many people wanted to get out of Kentucky to preserve their family units. Whether they were mistreated or not, they thought staying in Kentucky, made them sitting ducks for being sent down the river.

Kathy1toppick.jpg.  Kathy Schulz will be part of a panel discussion at the Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus, Ohio on April 22, 2023.
Kathy Schulz will be part of a panel discussion at the Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus, Ohio on April 22, 2023.

JK: You don't absolve anybody of the challenges that we have with history. But you do state that while much of the history surrounding the Underground Railroad has been forgotten or has never been brought to light, that is a double-edged sword, because you say that Ohio's history could be a source of pride.

KS: This has become a little bit of a mission of mine. As I said, I was back in Ohio for a book tour, and I was even I was surprised at the amount of interest, the number of people that came to my book events, and I'm not a known author. It's the subject. There are many, many Ohioans who are interested in this subject now. Twenty, 30, 40, 50 years ago, was that the case? I'm not sure, but people are certainly rediscovering this subject of the Underground Railroad and celebrating it.

I wish Ohio would do more as a state. I'm a little surprised and disappointed they have not, because I think it's time. Yes, I don't absolve anyone from the bad of slavery and the, you know, the challenges in Ohio (but) it's a very interesting era and Ohio should be very proud of what happened. Let's make sure everyone knows the amount of freedom seeker traffic coming through Ohio probably equals that of all the other states put together. Perhaps it was even more in Ohio. Ohio was the center of the Underground railroad.

JK: It is interesting, you know, we pin a lot of our aspirations on the history of the Wright brothers and the things you bring to light here really should be more at the forefront of the history of this state.

KS: Absolutely. Ohio, my last chapter of the book, I'm sure you're referring to that is about the legacy of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. And I was very interested in the kind of people who came to Ohio because of its anti-slavery thought and movement, and some interesting African Americans, and some prominent white Ohioans that went on to do wonderful things. We think of them as good people, but we never knew that their ancestors were actually part of the Underground Railroad. And you're mentioning the Wright brothers, so that's one little clue that we're certain that his parents, the Wright Brothers parents, were supportive of the Underground Railroad. What precisely they did, I can't really say. Some of that is still hidden, but we know from there, the dad was a bishop in the United Church of Brethren, which was an anti-slavery church, and they lived where there were roots. So, of course, I mean, of course they had to be involved. So, the Wright brothers, who were friends in high school with Paul Laurence Dunbar, fascinating story there.

JK: You mentioned that people who have been showing up to your book signings have been fascinated and surprised by some of the revelations outlined in your book. I'm sure that applied to you as well during your research.

KS: Yes, I guess when I grew up, I grew up in a very prominent underground railroad place. There were a lot of routes where I grew up. It was a county largely settled by Quakers, and I knew about the Underground Railroad as a little child. I can't remember not knowing about it, but I don't think I understood it well. And over the years, well, when I was a kid, I knew that people lived in other farms and towns and houses not far from from our house, as they made their way north to Canada for freedom. I never heard anything about tunnels, which happens to be an overplayed aspect of the Underground Railroad. So, I didn't think there were tunnels. But over the years I had learned, you pick up all the folklore, the tunnels, the drinking gourd song, the secret codes sewn into quilts. And I actually didn't trust that folklore. And it's true, most of it is folklore. It's mostly myth. You know, there are a few tunnels here and there, but there certainly weren't very many. What surprised me about the Underground Railroad is it's just so prominent in Ohio, the way it's everywhere. And what I appreciated on this book tour was the people in all the little individual towns. They knew their history, the people who would come out for these talks. I always would say, you folks know your local town better than I do. And sometimes I learned anecdotes as I traveled around that might have been in my book, but I didn't know them when I was writing. There's just a lot of history out there.

JK: What would you like people to take away from this book?

KS: I guess I would want Ohioans to take away pride, and a realization, also. Maybe you and I haven't talked enough about the fact that a lot of the Underground Railroad was free Black people, people of color helping other people of color. We need to keep our mind on that. I would also like people to take away the idea that this was people helping people and they were living together in fairly normal ways, fairly ordinary ways without tunnels, and most homes did not have secret rooms or anything, and they were hiding in plain sight. These people, the freedom seekers who came, oh, the fundraising that it took to feed them, clothe them, give them better clothing so they could fit in to a society and walk around looking like free Black people. So, I guess I'd like people to be proud of the Underground Railroad, but also realize I don't know if ordinary is the right word for it, but in parts, some of it was quite ordinary people helping other people and living with other people.

JK: Kathy, congratulations. And the book is really something special.

KS: Thank you very much, Jerry. I appreciate that. Thank you.

Jerry began volunteering at WYSO in 1991 and hosting Sunday night's Alpha Rhythms in 1992. He joined the YSO staff in 2007 as Morning Edition Host, then All Things Considered. He's hosted Sunday morning's WYSO Weekend since 2008 and produced several radio dramas and specials . In 2009 Jerry received the Best Feature award from Public Radio News Directors Inc., and was named the 2023 winner of the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors Best Anchor/News Host award. His current, heart-felt projects include the occasional series Bulletin Board Diaries, which focuses on local, old-school advertisers and small business owners. He has also returned as the co-host Alpha Rhythms.