Despite seeming claims to the contrary, not every Ohio house built before the Civil War was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Those shelters were actually very few and far between.
The National Park Service has tried to sort out historical fact from myth with its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom designations. The program also helps coordinate preservation and educational efforts between historical places, museums and other sites with legitimate ties to the network of safe houses that helped shelter and hide those escaping slavery.
One of the latest sites to receive the designation never hid escaping slaves. But its owner was a leading anti-slavery political leader, Union Army general and eventually president of the United States.
The James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor is the restored home of the 20th president and the site of the first presidential library to be established in the United States.
“We’re not claiming that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad,” Site Manager Todd Arrington said. “But James Garfield was vocally anti-slavery, and very pro-civil rights for free blacks in the Reconstruction period.”
Records and diaries from before the war also show that Garfield at least twice personally aided a fugitive freeing slavery, which helped the site secure the designation, Arrington said.
To Garfield, the Civil War was clearly, from the start, about slavery, Arrington said.
“Garfield wrote a letter two days after (the first shots of the Civil War at) Fort Sumter, saying, “The war will soon assume the shape of slavery and freedom,” Arrington noted.
Garfield volunteered for the Army, became a decorated general and got elected to Congress.
He was elected president in 1880. In his 1881 inaugural address, he said, “The elevation of the Negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787.”
But Garfield was assassinated after serving less than a year of his term. Had he lived, he may well have advanced race relations and African-Americans’ rights by decades, Arrington said.
“Although he didn’t always agree with Lincoln, Garfield was the last of the Lincoln Republicans, the last one that could hearken back to what the party was created for in the first place: equality for all men,” Arrington said.
Visitors to the Garfield National Historic Site have always seen and heard much about the 20th president’s commitment to civil rights, Arrington said. The site hopes to develop a few special programs and events next year to mark the Underground Railroad designation, he said.
For more information about the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, visit nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/index.htm. For information about the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, call 440-255-8722 or visit nps.gov/jaga/.