CLEVELAND — Nearly 200 years ago, Andrew Cozad and his family dared to be different.
“The Cozad family were some of those early abolitionists here in East Cleveland Township and University Circle that we know today that assisted,” said Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc.
What You Need To Know
- In the 1800s, slaves journeyed along a path that pointed north in hopes of finding a better life. The city of Cleveland was a vital stop along their journey
- Because of its distance to Canada and access to Lake Erie, Cleveland was seen as a direct path to freedom
- By helping freedom seekers, Clevelanders were operating against a series of federal laws designed to help support southern slave owners interest
- Clevelanders are preserving and sharing their stories and experiences of traveling to the region using a network of routes and safe harbor houses known as the Underground Railroad
The names of the people they assisted are unknown, as are how many there were, but what is known is that Cleveland was a part of their journey as they headed north on the path to freedom.
“Cleveland was known as Station Hope. This is where fugitives wanted to arrive. This is the last stop before they got to true freedom in Canada” said Kathryn Puckett of Restore Cleveland Hope.
Clevelanders are preserving and sharing their stories and experiences of traveling to the region using a network of routes and safe harbor houses known as the Underground Railroad.
“I am amazed at the courage of somebody who was enslaved and fleeing for their freedom,” said John J. Garbowski of the Western Reserve Historical Society. “Getting caught would have meant being punished being sold or whatever else. The cost of failure of making it to the north was extreme.”
In water, on land, in rain, or under the beaming sun, traveling from the south was a risky venture.
“People had to really make decisions based on their own intelligence and their own very limited experience of outer world,” Kathryn Puckett said.
Puckett chairs the board for Restore Cleveland Hope, an organization that works to interpret and pass on the true stories of the Underground Railroad.
“Managing their own security, their safety, food supplies, in hiding, not very well dressed, all the way to freedom — it's an incredible story of their own resilience," Puckett said.
It was a risk that many were willing to take to get to the city known as “Station Hope,” located in the free state of Ohio.
“There was a lot of abolitionist sentiment here in University Circle, East Cleveland Township,” said Wrean Fiebig of Restore Cleveland Hope. “It seems to have been, especially before the 1850s, really strict Fugitive Slave Act. It seems to have been fairly safe to have been here as a freedom seeker.”
By helping freedom seekers, Clevelanders were operating against a series of federal laws designed to help support southern slave owners interest. But that didn’t stop those at St. John’s Episcopal Church from trying to accomplish their ultimate goal of ending slavery.
“When bounty hunters would come into the neighborhood looking for the freedom seekers, people who lived in this neighborhood would have bells on their porches, and they would ring those bells, and if you heard about ringing, you would ring that bell,” said Raymond Bobgan of the Cleveland Public Theatre. “So the whole neighborhood would be ringing this bell to let freedom seekers know who was here. The story goes that they would come into this building, and that they would climb up the precarious ladder here and go up into the bell tower.”
The operation was a citywide partnership.
“If you were up in the tower, you could see two big bodies of water. One is the Cuyahoga River, and the other is Lake Erie,” said Rev. Kelly Aughenbaugh of St. John’s Episcopal Church. “People would wait, and whenever the appropriate light signal that said it is safe was shown, they would come down from the tower and either, I imagine, run walk, maybe get in the back of horse drawn wagons and then covered up and taken to the Cuyahoga River or to Lake Erie, to then go on boats going to Canada to freedom.”
The Cozad-Bates House is the last remaining pre-civil war structure standing in University Circle. Activist and artist India Nicole Burton of the Cleveland Public Theatre said the house and St. John’s Episcopal Church are helping tell the story of the Underground Railroad to generations of Ohioans.
“To know that I live in an area that provided a safe haven for my ancestors is really powerful,” Burton said.