I spent yesterday in Ripley, Ohio, one of my favorite cities in the United States. It’s a village planted 52 miles southeast of Cincinnati, considered the “Frontier to Freedom” because of its position on the “free” side of the mighty Ohio River.
During the antebellum period, given its location on the river, it became a destination for freedom seekers escaping bondage in Kentucky. The little town of Ripley was so engaged in abolitionist activity that it has a street still referred to as “Freedom Row” a group of homes that belonged to a diverse community of businessmen, elected officials, and others who worked in concert to assist freedom seekers in their journey out of enslavement. But the relationship between two operatives – John Parker, a former slave and Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister – can teach us how the spirit of cooperation and a shared conviction can overcome barriers of race, economic status, and cultural heritage.
John Parker was born into slavery in 1827 and at the age of eight was sold and forced to walk from Virginia to Alabama – chained to other slaves, a journey which ignited a hatred of bondage that fueled his life long passion for helping others gain their freedom. After earning extra money to purchase his own freedom, he eventually settled in Ripley where he opened a foundry strategically located on the banks of the Ohio River and by day employed over 25 men and helped to free over 1000 by night.
Rev. John Rankin believed so fervently in the anti-slavery cause that he risked his own life as well as the lives of his wife and 13 children to help over 2,000 people escape slavery…all from his home on Liberty Hill at the highest peak in Ripley. Parker and Rankin often worked together. One guiding freedom seekers across the river, through the small town, then up the hill. The other clothing, feeding, and providing solace until they could safely travel further north.
Ripley’s historical spirit of cooperation is not only admirable, it’s inspiring.
While Harriet Tubman may be considered the most well-known operative of the Underground Railroad, helping hundreds of enslaved individuals, both John Parker and Rev. Rankin are credited with assisting over a thousand times as many to freedom. Parker and Rankin’s collaboration can serve as a lesson for us today. They worked for a greater good in the spirit of cooperation. They sacrificed the personal for the collective. And they fought for freedom, even under the threat of imprisonment or death.