MEDINA — Amy Barnes, owner of an historic home on East Washington Street, still breaks down and cries, no matter how many times she tells the story.
Barnes’ home, built in the 1840s, was a stop along the Underground Railroad, a secret route by which runaway American slaves were conveyed to Canada and freedom. The home originally was owned by U.S. Army Col. Harrison Gray Blake, who once described himself as an “anti-slavery man and a friend of the slave.”
Barnes — speaking Saturday at Grace Drake Theater on South Broadway Street — said Blake hid escaped slaves in his house, but initially never told his two young daughters. But the girls started asking questions when they noticed their mother cooking more meals than the family needed. They wondered where the extra food was going.
Finally, Blake decided to show, not tell, his girls the truth. He walked them to the foot of the stairs and asked one of the hidden slaves to step from the attic. The slave lifted his shirt to show his scars and wounds.
“That is the day the girls became ardent supporters of their father’s work,” Barnes said through tears.
Barnes’ talk Saturday was part of a presentation about the Underground Railroad in Medina County. More than 200 people squeezed into Grace Drake Theater for the free event, presented by the Western Reserve Historical Society and Medina Bicentennial Committee.
Joe Skonce of Hale Farm spoke of a time when James Buchanan was president in the late 1850s, immediately before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad extended from the Deep South, where slavery was prominent, to Canada, where it was illegal.
Those who helped slaves escape used railroad terms like “routes” and “conductors” as code. A “station house” was anyplace a slave took shelter for a night or two, before moving farther north. “Baggage” referred to slaves themselves.
Skonce said Ohio cities like Medina, Ashtabula and Sandusky were among the last stops on the Underground Railroad.
Then Skonce and Rhianna Gordon, also of Hale Farm, performed a skit about a brother and sister, Benjamin and Clara, debating whether they should continue to take in “baggage” from the Underground Railroad. Benjamin and Clara were composite characters based on old newspaper articles, letters from abolitionists and other primary sources.
The skit showed tension between the idealism of abolitionists and more practical concerns.
Benjamin worried that neighbors might discover that they were hiding runaway slaves, and about how that would affect his family’s general store. He also feared bounty hunters searching for escaped slaves.
Benjamin wanted to keep supporting the abolitionist cause but only by giving money, not by sheltering slaves. Clara wanted to stay part of the Underground Railroad.
“Our duty is to keep our family safe,” Benjamin told Clara.
“No, our duty is to stand against injustice,” Clara said.
Messages may be left for Bob Sandrick at (330) 721-4060.