Kent and the Underground Railroad

Becky Adams

Former tavern was a friendly stop on the journey towards freedom

This rocking chair, dating back to the 1820s, belonged to Joshua Woodard and is now on display at the Kent Historical Society Museum. The quilt, from the same era, was used to inform runaway slaves of local allied support.

Credit: Ben Breier

It was dangerous to stop now.

They’d succeeded in remaining hidden all day and night had finally come. They needed to cover as many miles as they could to Cleveland before daybreak.

But the stabbing pains in their stomachs would not allow them to go on. They would stop at the tavern, eat and leave.

In 1825, knocking on doors was always a serious venture, even with many “friends” in the area.

They had come so far. It could all end now; the door was opening.

With bated breath, this group of fugitive slaves from Georgia introduced themselves to Joshua Woodard, owner of Woodard’s Tavern, which stood on the corner of Fairchild and Mantua streets in Franklin Mills, Ohio, now called Kent.

Woodard’s eyes scanned the dark, uneasy faces looking back at him: two men and their wives accompanied by another woman and her small child. Woodard gave them more than they’d bargained for: food, warm beds for the night and an escort to Cleveland in the morning.

Woodard’s family was well-known and respected in town. Since moving to Franklin Mills with his wife, Rebecca, he had become one of its primary social and industrial leaders.

Kent, a city today accustomed to hearing the roar of passing locomotives, was home to another sort of railroad beginning as early as 1825, the year Woodard sheltered six slaves.

Guy Pernetti, Kent Historical Society executive director, said it’s believed that more than half of all escaped slaves came through Ohio on the journey north toward freedom.

Though difficult to determine an exact number, the Society identifies at least five other Underground Railroad sites in Kent apart from the Woodard residence: the Cuyahoga House (where Digger’s Restaurant now stands on the northwest corner of Mantua and Cuyahoga streets); the Thomas Earl House (current site of Central School on Mantua Street); the former site of the Isaac Russell House (southwest corner of Lake and Willow streets); the John Perkins House (southeast corner of Haymaker Parkway and Longmere Street); and the Old Union Church (northeast corner of Water Street and Crain Avenue).

Jacqueline F. Rowser, associate professor in the department of Pan-African studies at Kent State and director for the Institute for African American Affairs, has devoted a significant portion of her time to being a student and teacher of the Underground Railroad, including a class she’ll be teaching this spring at Kent State.

Rowser said Ohio supposedly had more entry routes into the state than any other, making traffic significantly high.

“I think it’s critical to recognize how significant Ohio was to that whole process,” Rowser said. “First and foremost because of its location and the fact that it bordered several slave states. The (Ohio) river itself was the difference between freedom and imprisonment.”

About 180 years ago, the Woodard’s surprise guests had followed “the drinking gourd” – a code referring to the Big Dipper – across the Ohio River, past the bounty hunters, coming ever closer to their final destination: Canada, the country that had already ruled against slavery.

Now at Woodard’s Tavern, they couldn’t afford many more risks. They agreed to the proposal of James Woodard, Joshua’s son, who would be escorting the fugitive slaves to Cleveland in his wagon.

The small child, belonging to Mrs. Hurst, would have to stay behind.

Secrecy would be crucial; the runaways would be concealed under hay for the entirety of the trip, somewhat obscured by bags of grain. If the small boy cried out, their cover would be blown with harsh consequences for both parties. The Woodards agreed to care for the child until his mother could return at a safer time to retrieve him.

The decision proved wise. Along the road, their wagon encountered two bounty hunters. James hushed his nervous travel companions and ordered them to lie still. He whistled nonchalantly as the hunters approached, one on each side of the wagon.

When questioned about his load, James answered he was simply carrying produce to the Cleveland market. They believed the story, possibly somewhat distracted by their appetite. The bounty hunters rode off in the direction of Woodard’s Tavern, the closest place to find a bite to eat.

Rowser said it was a vicious period of time; quite a few people were imprisoned for assisting escaped slaves. They could also be fined, required to compensate the slave owner for lost earnings or lose property.

“Ohio had a very, very active set of abolitionists,” she said. “The abolitionists were not afraid. I mean, sure, they feared for their lives, but they were so committed to their work that they still, in spite of it all, assisted in the process of freeing people.”

The Woodards were not alone in their stand against slavery.

According to Karl H. Grismer, author of The History of Kent, “The people of Franklin Mills almost without exception were glad of the fact that they would soon have a chance to express, in an effective way, their deep hatred of slavery.”

Merritt Betts grew up knowing the Woodards’ story. Joshua Woodard was her great-great-great-grandfather. She donated family memorabilia to Kent’s special collections library, including a much-yellowed, undated newspaper clipping documenting the story of the Woodards’ encounter with these six runaways.

Betts said she shouldn’t receive credit for her ancestors’ bravery.

“You just hope in your life you can live up to their courage,” she said.

The Woodards’ story is relatively well-recorded, but other stories concerning the Underground Railroad can prove more elusive, Pernetti said. Particularly helpful are family diaries, old newspaper clippings, documented events and court records, he said.

The society owns several artifacts from this era, including Joshua Woodard’s rocking chair and a quilt stitched with secret code signaling to runaways that the home was friend, not foe.

The history is far more valuable than we give it credit, Rowser said.

“It’s an important American phenomenon that is often overlooked or it gets romanticized,” she said. “We tend to treat it as a blurb in history when black and white people worked together to free the slaves, and it’s so much more than that.”

Contact features correspondent Becky Adams at [email protected].