CLEVELAND — Ohio City's St. John's Episcopal Church is recognized as the oldest consecrated church building in Cuyahoga County, and is also believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
As we continue to honor Black History Month at 3News, Rev. Kelly Aughenbaugh, current Rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Medina, and Vicar at St. John's from 2016-2019, and Dr. Noël M. Voltz, Assistant Professor of History at Case Western University shared perspectives on both St. John's and Cleveland's unique role in the Underground Railroad, and the significance behind the name "Station Hope."
Rev. Aughenbaugh: "Sometimes looks are deceiving. Our church is beautiful, but it looks old and there's plaster coming down on the inside. The outside needs work. But on the flip side of that, it is old and it has seen and done a lot. ... It began being built in 1834, and it was finished in 1836 ... and it was at the time when it was built, the tallest structure in the city."
Dr. Volz: "The Underground Railroad is one of the most interesting and yet complex and mythologized aspects of the Antebellum era. And I think in many ways it's been mythologized because of what it represents - this interracial coalition-building against slavery. It's something that I think many people in the US want to hold onto as a bright moment in a period of time that is so ugly. But unfortunately, it's not exactly what we've painted it to be ... in reality the Underground Railroad was really a loose and informal connection of people, predominantly black, although joined by some white Northerners as well, that were allies that worked and helped enslaved people make the journey to freedom."
Rev. Aughenbaugh: "St. John's was a stop on the Underground Railroad. We do have some primary source material, and it was from a person, a woman who came to this parish. A note she wrote. She wrote about people hiding in the Bell Tower. ... And so from the Bell Tower, you could see far and what would happen is boats would be on the river and they would use light signals to let people know when it was safe or not safe to leave and to come down to the boats."
Dr. Volz: "A lot of the Underground Railroad, as we would call it, generally existed in the border states. For the enslaved, it would require you to go from wherever you are in the south and make your way all the way across the Ohio River before there would be any intervention. Now, this is going to completely change in 1850, however with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and no longer does just getting to Ohio equal freedom, because people have to now go to Canada to actually achieve any sort of freedom. And that's why Cleveland becomes such an important sort of way station [on the Underground Railroad] for lack of a better word.
I want to emphasize that while the Underground Railroad is important, the key actors that we need to focus on are the enslaved themselves. They are the ones who are doing the action. They are the ones who are literally risking their lives."
Rev. Aughenbaugh: "Most likely the whole congregation did not know, because that would defeat the purpose. When you were describing and talking and helping freedom seekers who were traveling the Underground Railroad, you wouldn't tell a ton of people because the whole idea was that it was secret and safe as much as it could be."
Dr. Volz: "Speaking to what we do know about Cleveland, there are lots of sites in Cleveland that have been attached to the Underground Railroad, probably most famously the Cozad Bates House, and St. John's. But there are actually many spaces that were a part of the anti-slavery movement, if not specifically in the Underground Railroad. ... I love these stories and I think that they're incredibly important but again, I always go back to, but it was the enslaved who had to do the work, didn't, no one just came and picked them up and then took them somewhere else. They had to figure out this journey and it was an arduous journey."
Rev. Aughenbaugh: There's been mention of St. John's itself being called Station Hope, but I've also heard it and maybe the more accurate way to describe this station would be that Cleveland was called Station Hope."
Dr. Volz: "Actually, the name is kind of marred in myth and we're not entirely certain where it originated. We do know that there was a lot of narratives that spoke of Cleveland as kind of looking toward hope because you are almost there, [almost to Canada.]"
Rev. Aughenbaugh: "There's a sense of pride ... that [St. John's] did this because at the same time, there were other Episcopal churches in other parts of our country who were segregating people. And that is a part of our history, and I'm thinking of the Episcopal Church history specifically. That is something to not be proud of and that we're still working through. But there's a sense of excitement, joy, hope, pride and just all those good feelings that this place, and these people, along with others helped others find freedom because that was their human dignity. And to follow Jesus is to also, I think to work for people's freedom and to see people as whole people. ... It's very personal to be and an honor, to be in a place and space that's long ago worked for this. And the history of this particular congregation continued from there in a vein of social justice and other things, and opened their doors to let people come in to use the space."
Dr. Volz: "These sites are so incredibly important. They're not only important for what they hold, the history that's within the walls of these buildings but they're also important because of the story that they tell us about the parishioners and about those interracial organizers. There is a level to which there was this beauty in the underground railroad of interracial organizing that we oftentimes don't hear a lot about. And that's the story that when we kind of get rid of all the myth, it comes to light. And it was in spaces like the church that played out. And I think that it's important for us today because it's a reminder that even in moments where the nation feels like it's doing, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing, that there are those who can stand up for justice and stand up for freedom and really push for change. And that can be a fight that is led by the black community, but can be joined by so many others. And it's kind of my hope that we look to the past as inspiration for the future in that way."