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Glendale’s history as Underground Railroad site being commemorated with new tour

Eliza House in Glendale.jpg
Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 18:07:02-05

GLENDALE, Ohio — The houses in Glendale have a way of taking you back in time.

Large, picturesque Post-Colonial and Greek Revival style homes like those sitting on East Fountain Avenue and Sharon Road conjure up visions of what life there was probably like in its early days in the mid-1800s. Residents and historians have long looked at these homes with the suspicion that they were stations along the Underground Railroad.

From the street level, the houses grab your attention with their stately columns and shutters, multiple chimneys and elegant masonry. However, their underground rooms and tunnels suggest the houses were hideaways for runaway slaves within the expansive abolitionist network.

Until now, there has been nothing in Glendale to officially document or celebrate its past as a hotspot for anti-slavery activism in the 19th century. A local man is now leading a group of village residents in an effort to memorialize Glendale's history as an Underground Railroad station in a way they feel has been long deserved.

“We're in a village where people don't like change at all," Bill Parrish said. "So, for this to be happening, it's huge."

Parrish, the founder and executive director of the Eckstein Cultural Arts Center, is leading an effort to create a self-guided walking tour of what was once the village’s stops along the Underground Railroad. Glendale’s village council approved of the idea earlier this month after Parrish introduced the concept through a presentation. Parrish says his team plans to launch the self-guided walking tour by next February.

“I think it’s fantastic," said Glendale homeowner Joe Morton. "I think it’s something the residents should be proud of, Black and white, actually."

Morton had never seen one of the tunnels for himself while growing up in the village but said that its history as an Underground Railroad was widely talked about. While he has sensed that some people in the area are ashamed about this, he feels celebrating Glendale's role in the Underground Railroad offers a chance for the community to collectively heal.

"It’s an opportunity to draw neighbors closer together," Morton said.

ECAC board members, as well as about 10 other people living in the area, are volunteering to support the project. Parrish said he and his team feel it is critical to memorialize Glendale’s history from the slavery era in a transparent and accessible way for everyone in the community. Projects like this one have the potential to disrupt Glendale’s culture of being hesitant to openly acknowledge the darker, more complex parts of its past in regards to racism against African Americans.

“We love this community," Parrish said. "It's not one person, generally, [that] you will find in this community that don't like it here. But we’re trying to help it grow," he said. "So we just found that this was one aspect. It's not to put a sharp stick in anybody's eye. It’s just to make the history known and let people, you know, connect with it.”

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Pictured above is the entrance to the tunnel located at the Samuel B. Allen house on West Fountain Avenue and Congress Avenue in Glendale. A room located underground at this intersection and the tunnel imply a connection to the Underground Railroad. The tunnel that led to the house at 780 Congress was filled in 1992.

"I just think there is a rich history here with so many things that just haven’t come to light," said Michelle Parrish, another Glendale resident who happens to be Bill Parrish's former sister-in-law. She said people who were not raised in Glendale are uniquely positioned to benefit from history projects like the Underground Railroad tour. "I think it’s valuable to them as well to find out the things that were actually a part of this village."

Bill Parrish, the author of "An Underground Community: How Blacks Settled in the Historic Village of Glendale," said he and his creative team are in the very early stages of executing the idea. Their vision is to create about 10 to 15 tour stops that made up the village's Railroad, where there were tunnels and homes with hideaways underground. In addition to East Fountain Avenue and Sharon Road, other expected tour stops will include Oak Street, Chester Road, West Fountain Avenue and Laurel Road.

The idea to create a tour of Glendale’s Underground Railroad sites came up during a discussion series Parrish led for the community last year to openly discuss the issue of racism. The discussion series was prompted by the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker fatally shot by police during a raid while she was sleeping in her Louisville, Kentucky, home. The concept was one of a handful that residents came up with as a tangible step they could take to have an impact on racism in their area.

Glendale is in part famous for its history as an Underground Railroad station. Most of Glendale's residents at the time the Railroad was active were wealthy white people; a significant portion of the community supported the abolitionist cause. At least one of the village’s real-life residents, Glendale's Underground Railroad Conductor John Van Zandt, and his home, a railroad stop called the Eliza house, were fictionalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s groundbreaking 1852 novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Stowe once famously lived in Walnut Hills, a neighborhood where her family home still stands and has also been memorialized into a museum to this day.

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John Van Zandt is known as the conductor of Glendale's Underground Railroad. His home, Eliza House, and his farm, Mt. Piermont, that once stood on by Chester Road were the most active stations in the village's railroad network. Van Zandt died in in jail in 1847 while battling a U.S. Supreme Court case in which he was indicted for harboring slaves.

Her novel’s vivid, evocative depiction of American slavery’s cruelty was widely used to advance the abolitionist movement. While living in Cincinnati, Stowe helped anti-slavery movements and supported runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad network. The accounts she witnessed during the nearly two decades she spent living in Cincinnati inspired the book that would earn her international acclaim.

Parrish said an interactive website about Glendale’s Underground Railroad history, as well as history about other nearby Underground Railroad stations like Sharonville and Springboro, will be made for the tour. Instead of having live tour guides, the team is planning to find a way for visitors to listen to audio through a phone app that will share information about the locations they are standing in or walking through.

Village officials share Parrish’s enthusiasm for the project. Mayor Don Lofty told WCPO the village is proud of its past and its status as a national historic district. Still, efforts that tap into Glendale’s Black life from yesteryear are appreciated for filling out parts of the village’s story that have previously been left out or glossed over.

“We really welcome anybody coming forward with an idea that will promote Glendale's history,” Lofty said. “To be honest, I think the African American history with respect to the Underground Railroad has not gotten the attention it deserves, and so we liked the idea of coming forward with something that will promote this very important part of our history.”

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Wallace Shelton, pictured here with his wife, worked closely with Van Zandt as another pivotal railroad conductor. Shelton used his platform as a pastor of numerous churches in the area to advance the abolitionist movement. Zion Baptist Church, a Black church he pioneered, was a central location for anti-slavery activity and hid countless runaway slaves.

“The other thing that is so interesting about Mr. Parrish’s project is that it makes history interactive, which is something that is always engaging for, especially for, newcomers and new learners,” said David Lumsden, Glendale’s assistant village administrator. “That's something I think we have the benefit of because so much of our history is related to the architecture of our homes and our streets, and there is a level of engagement there that some people might not get, say, at a museum.”

Walter Cordes, Glendale's village administrator, acknowledged local volunteers like Parrish and his team for being the ones who have taken initiative to document and preserve Glendale’s history. He acknowledges the Underground Railroad project as an opportunity for anyone to learn from, including himself.

“Our enthusiasm and our interest was piqued because I've worked here for many years and I'm familiar with some of the Black history, and I'm looking forward to learning about more of the Black history,” Cordes said. “I’m very appreciative of [Mr. Parrish] doing this.”

A number of residents expressed surprise and relief that Glendale officials have expressed support for the effort.

“I’m just happy to see that the village is accepting of this. It seems like it’s been a long road to get to this point," said Libby Hambrick, an ECAC board member. "I’m glad that it seems to be coming together and that they’re open to moving forward with the project.”

Charlie Pierce, a longtime collaborator with Parrish on his historical projects, echoed Hambrick's sentiments. He said the local government has clashed with residents over similar projects tapping into the village's Black history before.

"They haven’t been receptive, but they’ve been receptive of late, and it’s a great step forward.”

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Glendale was the first village in Ohio to be designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1977 by the U.S. Department of Interior. Despite this, today's residents say that the village's documentation and commemoration of its history relevant to race, Black figures and slavery are sorely lacking.

Parrish says the project’s cost is projected at $35,000 to create the technology for the various tour stops, print materials, the tour’s website and other digital resources like an interactive map. He went on to say that a private sponsor has made a financial commitment to the bulk of the project costs, but negotiations for additional financial support are ongoing.

Parrish last garnered media attention for his failed attempts to acquire the Eckstein school building on Washington Avenue. The schoolhouse once served as a classroom exclusively for Black children in Glendale prior to local schools being desegregated in 1958. The ECAC founder had plans of revamping the space to preserve Glendale’s Black history and repurpose it as a cultural space. The building was sold by the village to an architect from Over-the-Rhine in 2018 following a public bid on the property. However, the property was put back on the market last month following more unsuccessful efforts to renovate the building.

Parrish’s attempts to acquire the building are ongoing, but he’s now keeping his eyes on a larger prize when it comes to leaving a positive legacy in his native village. He said he is grounded by his mission to honor the past contributions of Glendale’s Black residents and to pass on that information to generations to come.

“Buildings, they're all going to go away at some point. But the history, if I can provide that history for these kids that are coming up in Glendale…that's the success,” Parrish said. “It's not about me and what I'm doing. I think it's much more about, how do we provide the information to educate people? Because if we don't, then there's a new narrative that's being written right before our eyes.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

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