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Historical marker would recognize Underground Railroad

URBANA (AP) — The Ohio Historical Society is planning to dedicate a marker in Freedom Grove to the men and women who maintained the Underground Railroad along Urbana’s portion of what is now U.S. Route 68. The ceremony is slated for Aug. 31.

Urbana native Mark Evans of Columbus and historian Art Thomas of Springfield performed the research necessary to validate the city’s ties to the Underground Railroad. In the process, the two were able to trace their ancestors’ efforts to facilitate the escape of fugitive slaves for a period of about 35 years, ending in 1865.

“We’re trying to show the involvement of folks in the Urbana and Champaign County areas with the Underground Railroad, but also that there were African Americans involved (as conductors of the Railroad),” said Thomas.

“Knowing this has always given me a lot of pride, to have some kind of knowledge of where I’m from and what happened,” said Evans, a distant cousin of Thomas.

Evans and Thomas said that as men of black descent they are grateful to know about their family’s rich history since so many people of black descent aren’t afforded that opportunity. After months of research in libraries, courthouses, homes and historical societies from Cincinnati to Logan County, the pair submitted a request to the Ohio Historical Society last fall.

The most telling piece of evidence, said Thomas, was a study by former Ohio State University professor Wilbur Henry Siebert, who in the 1880s instructed his students to interview sources from all over Ohio about the prevalence of safe houses.

Siebert published books on the discoveries including Mysteries of the Ohio Underground Railroad and The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. One can find in these accounts stories of Lewis Adams and his sons, free black men who worked as barbers by day and conductors of the Underground Railroad by night, risking their lives to ensure the freedom of others. Adams is an ancestor of both Evans and Thomas.

“It’s all been rumors (until now),” said Evans, adding he grew up hearing stories of Adams’ feats. “It’s been an interesting experience to find all this out.”

Evans’ interest peaked last May when he visited the Freedom Center in Cincinnati and discovered an entire section of the building dedicated to U.S. Route 68 and its involvement with the escape of fugitive slaves. With the help of Thomas, Evans learned that his fourth-great-grandfather (Adams) had been freed by a Kentucky plantation owner who they believe was Adams’ father. Adams then moved north to Urbana.

The Fugitive Slave laws passed in 1793 and 1850 gave rise to the Underground Railroad’s existence in places like Champaign County.

Evans’ request for a historical marker was approved in November by the Ohio Historical Society, which also awarded Evans a $700 grant to help cover the costs of erecting the marker. The total cost will run about $2,800, said Evans, who is reaching out to other descendants of conductors of the Underground Railroad in the Urbana area for donations for the marker.

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