Historians work to reconstruct the Underground Railroad in Putnam

ZANESVILLE – It was 1866 when Frederick Douglass spoke at Putnam Presbyterian Church for the second time.

Supporters gathered at the Woodlawn Avenue Church, thrilled to see one of America’s most prominent abolitionists speak and celebrate the black man’s newfound freedom. An Underground Railroad town, Putnam was a good place for Douglass to stop. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother was previously a pastor at the church.

The year of Douglass’ speech marked another milestone in the quest to abolish the institution of slavery in the United States: the first observance of June 19, established in 1866, a year after the last American slave was freed. .

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to initiate a ban on the institution of slavery in the South on January 1, 1863, but it was not until June 19, 1865, when the last American slave was freed . Texas was the last Confederate state to receive the message.

Celebration — and frustration — surrounded the day the enslaved people of Texas were belatedly freed, but people shouldn’t forget the injustices black people faced in their own communities in the centuries that followed, Steve said. Stewart, Vice Chairman of the Board of the Nelson T. Gant Foundation. .

This includes Zanesville, which, founded by southerners, was largely pro-slavery in the 19th century, and then a separate municipality from Putnam. But racism in the city didn’t suddenly disappear when slavery was abolished, Stewart said.

Steve Stewart

From the separate pools for whites and blacks decades ago, to the Coal Run residents’ struggle for clean water, Stewart doesn’t want those days to be forgotten.

“Do we carry over the anger about things that happened in the past – different restaurants where you couldn’t eat, places where you couldn’t live, or are we looking forward to it?” said Stewart. “We can’t forget, but we can’t hold the heavy grudge we sometimes feel we owe.”

Nor do local historians want Putnam’s role in the Underground Railroad erased. There isn’t as much documentation as desired due to its secretive nature, so it may be difficult to piece together, according to Muskingum County History Director Scott Beatty.

“It’s common knowledge. It’s an important part of our history, but it’s hard to get (documentation),” Beatty said.

A secret operation difficult to trace

A separate municipality from Zanesville before its annexation, was a thriving Underground Railroad town with conductors ushering weary runaway slaves to hide in their homes.

The Stone Academy is now home to Muskingum County’s history, but it’s come a long way since it was built in 1809. It was first built in hopes that Putnam would become Ohio’s capital, but Zanesville l beat with the creation of the Muskingum County Courthouse. .

The Stone Academy turned out to have another purpose. In 1833 the Putnam Anti-Slavery Society was founded by HC House and others. The Ohio Anti-Slavery Society has held conventions there, the first of which was attended by 114 people who were met by a crowd of protesters.

A crawl space under the stairs of the Stone Academy.  It is believed that runaway slaves hid in the quarters while traveling on the Underground Railroad.

At one point protesters returned after an accused fugitive slave was thrown into the local jail. The prison caught fire after he tried to escape from a hole he had burned in his cell.

This was all based on a Zanesville newspaper article, the only known account of the incident. It’s a similar story for the well-known indicators of Underground Railroad stops in the North. In some communities, coins were presented to travelers or candles were placed in the window to communicate that they were allies.

But it is not known if this happened in Putnam. The whole operation was secret, so it wouldn’t be well documented. Douglass’ tours were also famous in local history, but there’s not much to say about what he actually talked about except to celebrate the end of slavery.

“As we find out, Frederick Douglass had a knack for the ad-lib,” Beatty said, so there’s really no copy of his speech to report.

Muskingum County History runs tours. An app developed by the Zanesville city government will also help guide visitors on tours.

People might know more about Augmentation Matthews, who helped found Putnam, and John McIntire, co-founder of Zanesville. Matthews’ house still exists today.

However, cases like the accused fugitive slave are not as well known. There was a confrontation on the now defunct Third Street Bridge between pro-slavery residents of Zanesville and anti-slavery residents of Putnam who were trying to protect the man.

Nelson T. Gant, a black man freed from slavery, was one of Zanesville’s most prominent figures before and after Reconstruction. He was a philanthropist and donated land. What is not known is if he had any role in the Underground Railroad. Historians will probably never know.

Later injustices are not forgotten

Juneteenth is marked as a celebration of the official start of abolition, but it is also remembered as a holiday born out of injustice. It took a long time for the messengers to arrive in Galveston, Texas.

Like the injustices surrounding June 19, 1865, Stewart does not want the injustices in the community erased.

Go back to the 1800s and 1900s and the local economy was on a roll. River traffic, railroads, agriculture, and pottery all contributed to the growth of the community. In the 20th century, after the Great Depression, downtown Zanesville recovered and the area is fondly remembered by many people.

“But the black community doesn’t have all of those great memories,” Stewart said.

Putnam Presbyterian Church on Woodlawn Avenue.  Prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at church twice in his life, once in 1866 to celebrate the freedom of the black man after the abolition of slavery.

He grew up in the former Eighth Ward of Zanesville. A place where meatpacking houses were abundant, the area was known for a pervasive smell of dead cattle and animal blood. It was a segregated community, Stewart recalled, as he said it was nearly impossible for black people to find housing elsewhere without being banned in some way.

The city center was not particularly welcoming either. He said it was not uncommon for black customers to be denied service in some restaurants and retail establishments.

Stewart shared a particularly difficult memory. At age 3, he was hit by a car while playing baseball with other neighborhood kids. He needed a blood transfusion – and fast – to save his life.

It was not culturally acceptable for white blood to be used for transfusion to black people. If it weren’t for a black man who happens to be O-negative, Stewart wouldn’t be alive.

These were times of great injustice. The city’s black pool had a racist colloquial name, “the inkwell”. Finding accommodation has always been a major obstacle.

Stewart always hoped things would get better. But the past should not be erased.

“We have to keep the history and remember what happened, so that it never comes to that again,” Stewart said, “so we don’t allow people to be discriminated against because of something that’s going on. ‘they have no control’. more – the color of their skin.”

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Bonny J. Streater