Journalist and nonfiction author Hagedorn (Ransom, 1998, etc.) retrieves the largely unsung efforts of abolitionists in a small Ohio town who helped several hundred slaves escape to freedom.
The abolitionist movement was a uniquely local, community-based response to the centralized federal government’s attempts to maintain slavery in states that depended on it economically and to appease the interests of slaveholders. Though united in condemning slavery, abolitionists were undecided as to what to do with freed and escaped slaves: some advocated sending them back to Africa, others insisted on educating them and forcing them to convert to Christianity, still others favored isolating them in segregated farming compounds; only a very few were willing to accept black people as equal members of their communities. The author brilliantly selects a deceptively minor setting—Ripley, an out-of-the-way Ohio River shipbuilding village—to investigate these issues. The Reverend John Rankin, a shy, struggling Presbyterian minister until confrontation with the cruelties of slavery transformed him into a tireless crusader, serves as Hagedorn’s hero. After settling in Ripley in 1821, Rankin preached and wrote against slavery while sheltering and escorting to the Canadian border hundreds of enslaved Africans and their American-born children who had swum or crawled across the frozen Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky. Hagedorn, herself a resident of Ripley, sympathizes openly with Rankin and his fellow abolitionists who risked life, limb, and prosecution by shameless law-abiding citizens who refused to see escaped slaves as anything more than stolen property. This is hardly a fault in a work of deep moral passion anchored in illuminating local particulars.
Stirring, frequently astonishing popular history: a tale of selfless heroics to ease a nation's uncertain spirit.