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Posted on Wed. Feb. 19, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Maumee River valley played an important role in Underground Railroad

Symposium Saturday at Fort Wayne Museum of Art will explore various aspects of this network helping fleeing former slaves

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Exploring the Underground Railroad

What: “Underground No More: A Symposium on the Underground Railroad” will feature local and regional scholars presenting information on the Underground Railroad. Speakers will include artist Johnny Coleman of Oberlin, Ohio, whose “Variations Upon a Theme: Songs of the Underground Railroad” exhibit is on display now through March 9.

When: 1-5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 311 E. Main St.

Cost: Symposium is free with admission, which is $1 per person on the last Saturday of the month.

Information: For a list of speakers and their topics, go to www.fwmoa.org/Programs.

Note: Angie Quinn, executive director of the Maumee Valley Heritage Corridor, will speak on “The Underground Railroad and Abolition in the Maumee Valley” at 1:45 p.m. Saturday during the symposium. She will repeat the presentation at 2 p.m. Sunday at Historic Sylvania Village in Sylvania, Ohio, on the northwest side of Toledo.

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Fort Wayne may not have been a central “station” on the Underground Railroad, but the Maumee River valley played a key role in countless African Americans' journeys from slavery to freedom.

Angie Quinn, executive director of the Maumee Valley Heritage Corridor, will discuss the area's contributions during a presentation at 1:45 p.m. Saturday at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Quinn will be one of several speakers during “Underground No More: A Symposium on the Underground Railroad” 1-5 p.m. Saturday at the museum.

The event is organized by the art museum, the local African/African-American Historical Society and Museum, and the Three Rivers Institute of Afrikan Arts and Culture. The symposium is included in the museum's Last Saturday admission price of $1 per person.

From the late 1700s and through the 1850s, tens of thousands of African Americans held as slaves in the South fled from their owners to find freedom in Northern free states or in Canada.

Their routes to living free took many paths, said Quinn, the former executive director of Fort Wayne-based historic preservation group ARCH. She provided this background:

During the American Revolutionary War in the late 1770s, both American and British armies promised freedom after the war to slaves who joined their ranks.

Those who fought for the American side received their freedom here. Many former slaves who fought with British were taken by withdrawing British troops to live as free men in Jamaica and New Brunswick, Canada.

Some former slaves were released by their owners.

A small number of owners even bought land for their former slaves in free states and moved them to their new homes. These efforts started small settlements of African Americans in rural Van Wert, Mercer and Paulding counties in Ohio, which are just east of Fort Wayne and Allen County.

A majority of slaves, however, set off on their own, fleeing from their owners with hopes of making their way north to freedom.

Many of those moving up the East Coast crossed into Canada near Niagara Falls, N.Y.

A large number of former slaves who made it across the Ohio River came through the Maumee River valley on their way to Detroit and then into Canada. The Maumee River, and later the adjacent Wabash and Erie Canal, served as landmarks marking their route toward Toledo.

Along the way, they likely received help at least occasionally from the Underground Railroad.

Made up mainly of people who opposed slavery, the Underground Railroad helped hide and guide former slaves as they continued north. But rather than a highly planned network, the Underground Railroad was very loosely organized and, in this area, likely provided spotty assistance.

“People running from slavery were freeing themselves,” Quinn said. “They were the ones taking all of the risks.”

Researchers have found very little information about Underground Railroad activity in Fort Wayne, though it was home to a few prominent abolitionists — people opposed to slavery. However, one former slave's account of his journey north, which he shared in the 1890s, mentions help he received in Fort Wayne from the Rev. Nelson Black, who also worked as a blacksmith.

Records show Black, a free African American, arrived in Fort Wayne just after 1840 and had left by about 1860. He and a few other men bought land in the mid-1840s to build an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), but the congregation never built on that site.

Once former slaves reached what is now the Toledo area, they could find help in a large community of free African Americans living and working there.

At the time, that area consisted of a few small communities. In one of them, Port Lawrence, 1850 Census records show about 250 African-American residents, most of whom worked as crew members on ships or as barbers.

Quinn speculates barbers likely played a key role in quietly passing information to newly arriving former slaves trying to get to Detroit, where they could cross the Detroit River to freedom in Canada.

kkilbane@news-sentinel.com


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