73-Year-Old Woman Retraces Underground Railroad Route

RIPLEY, Ohio (AP) - A 73-year-old woman has begun a two-month walk across Ohio retracing the route of the Underground Railroad, which took escaped slaves to freedom.

"Let's go," Joan Southgate of Cleveland shouted to companions as she began the 327-mile walk on Tuesday in this Ohio River community southeast of Cincinnati.

She was accompanied by her son, Danny, grandsons Nikolas and Jeremy and Hester Butterfield, a friend from Germany.

Southgate made it 10 miles to Higginsport on the first day and then set off seven miles for Chilo, where she was staying Wednesday night.

She plans to use a laptop computer to correspond with three Cleveland schools about her experiences along the path, which was mapped out by friends who volunteered to drive the route in advance.

She will head first to Cincinnati and then to Columbus and Cleveland, with stops in between at key locations along the Underground Railroad, including Oberlin in northeast Ohio, where abolitionists openly defied the Fugitive Slave Act to help fleeing slaves.

Southgate began the walk at the Ripely home of John Parker, a freed black man who rowed his skiff across the Ohio River numerous times to help slaves escape from Kentucky.

Ripley Mayor Kathy Gast was among the well-wishers at Southgate's departure, as was Jerry Gore, who leads tours of the Underground Railroad route.

Gore marked the occasion with an impromptu history lesson against the backdrop of the Ohio River.

Slaves flocked to the "Chilly Jordan," as it was called, swimming across when the river was low, or escaping in boats or even clinging to logs when the water was high, and leaping across ice floes when it was frozen.

With partner Peggy Overly, Gore narrates a tour called "Crossing the Danger Zone."

"This really was the danger zone here," Gore said of the Kentucky-Ohio border, which was heavily patrolled by slave catchers.

"They were so close and yet so far" when runaway slaves arrived at the Ohio River, Gore said.

Butterfield flew from Germany to Cleveland to be at Southgate's side for the first week of her trip. People in Germany gave her practical items for the trip, including a pocketknife, flashlight and reflective vests.

"People want to be a part of it," she said. "That's exactly what she wanted -- for people to know about it, talk about it."

Each of Southgate's seven grandchildren will walk part of the route, and her four children will take turns driving her support vehicle, stocked with water and snacks.

Southgate said she hopes to connect with local people and raise awareness.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)