Walking the Route of the Underground Railroad

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Three years ago, Joan Southgate walked 519 miles along the route of the Underground Railroad from the little town of Ripley on the Ohio River all the way to Canada. Karen Schaefer of member station WCPN in Cleveland retraces Southgate's journey.

ED GORDON, host:

Three years ago, a Cleveland grandmother walked over 500 miles along Ohio's former Underground Railroad to raise racial awareness. Karen Schaefer of member station WCPN retraces Joan Southgate's remarkable journey

Ms. JOAN SOUTHGATE: I did this to honor and praise the freedom seekers and the conductors that helped them.

KAREN SCHAEFER reporting:

At this elementary school in the rural hills midway between Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, the first taping of the day is just getting under way. Seventy-six-year-old Joan Southgate is not much taller than the dozens of children who sit cross-legged on the floor at her feet. But her raspy voice holds them spellbound as she relates the story of her trek across the state. She compares her journey to that of the escaping slaves whose path she followed.

Ms. SOUTHGATE: It turned out that this was not only easy, but it was absolutely joyful.

SCHAEFER: Joan Southgate's walk ended three years ago, but the retired social worker and grandmother of nine has returned, this time by car, to the small farming town of Mt. Vernon, Ohio. A TV station from her native Cleveland is taping Joan's school visits and tours of Underground Railroad sites for a new documentary about her 519-mile walk.

(Soundbite of people walking)

SCHAEFER: In May of that year, this reporter joined Joan and grandson Jeremy as she arrived in Oberlin, nearly two months into her journey.

(Soundbite of from 2002 interview)

SCHAEFER: You know, your grandmother doesn't walk. She runs.

JEREMY: 'Cause she wants to get to...

Ms. SOUTHGATE: Oberlin.

JEREMY: ...Oberlin fast.

Ms. SOUTHGATE: Yeah.

All along the way, from early on, during those first few weeks in 2002, it was the children that would surprise you again and again and again.

SCHAEFER: It was a child who first brought Joan to Mt. Vernon three years ago. This was once an alternate route on Ohio's Underground Railroad and the site of Klan activity until the 1950s. Debbie Strauss teaches history and language arts at Mt. Vernon Middle School.

Ms. DEBBIE STRAUSS (Teacher): Andy McGough was one of my students, and Andy was very much interested in the topic of slavery. So I just happened to see an article in our local newspaper that talked about Joan Southgate.

SCHAEFER: Andy McGough and his mother, Patty Jamieson, caught up with Joan on her walk.

Ms. PATTY JAMIESON: I took my other two children out of school and took my mother, and we made a day of it. And I almost hated to leave that day. It was like meeting friends that you just didn't want to part with. And then she called and said, you know, she'd like to come to Mt. Vernon on her walk.

SCHAEFER: Andy, now 16, recalls the day he and his history team welcomed Joan to their school, then accompanied her to the town hall.

ANDY McGOUGH (Student): Walking down Main Street in the rain, and my whole entire team is behind me and all my teachers and everybody packing into that little room. And Mayor Mavis said that--`Man, I wish we could have this many people in here all the time.' He said, `This town would be a lot better off.'

SCHAEFER: Joan's visit changed Andy's life, but it also touched the lives of many others in Mt. Vernon. Linette Porter, the reporter who wrote the story that alerted Andy's teacher to Joan's walk, has since given up her job to work full-time documenting the racial history of the area.

Ms. LINETTE PORTER (Former Reporter): We have some history that people, like, `Oh, I don't know if we want to go there. Do we want to discuss this?' Well, what happened is we started discussing it, and when you turn the light on, the dark's not so scary.

SCHAEFER: Joan Southgate.

Ms. SOUTHGATE: I want everyone, black and white, to swell with pride when you say `American slave.' I want everyone to claim those people as founding fathers.

SCHAEFER: Joan Southgate says she'll come back here to see how the dialogue she began three years ago with her now famous walk evolves. For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaefer in Mt. Vernon, Ohio.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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