Black History: Midlands played role in Underground Railroad

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Lewis, Iowa, is home to the Hitchcock House, a stop for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad

It’s believed that at least 100,000 slaves escaped from the southern states through the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a series of routes and safe houses located throughout the South and other areas that helped slaves escape to safety in Florida, Mexico, northern states and Canada.

The Underground Railroad route to Canada included safe houses in Nebraska and Iowa. At least three homes have been confirmed as stops along the route.

The escaped slaves movement was referred to as a railroad, because much of the language revolved around railroads. The actual Underground Railroad was not underground nor a railroad. Underground referred to the “secret” support and actions of supporters.

Nebraska City is home to the Mayhew Cabin. The family helped hide fleeing slaves in a cave near the home. The family hid 12 people once. The descendants from both the Mayhews and one of the escaped slaves met in Nebraska City.

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The Mayhew cabin Nebraska City

The cabin was moved from its original location, so the cave once used to help hide people no longer exists. In its place, is a replica allows visitors an opportunity to see what the African Americans hiding there went through.

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The replica cave in Nebraska City

The historic site is home to a small museum, which covers the history of slavery in America.

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Cuffs used to bound slaves

One exhibit includes “Beecher’s Bibles.” It was believed that rifles were sent from New England to Kansas anti-slavery proponents by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, disguised in boxes labeled Bibles.” Weapons were also sent in boxes labeled “Tools.”

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Replica John Brown and “Beecher’s Bibles”

Up the road a few miles in western Iowa stands the Todd House in Tabor. The Rev. John Todd, a follower of abolitionist John Brown, built the house in 1853.

The two-floor house (basement and main floor) welcomed African Americans making their way north to Canada. The house had 200 rifles located in the basement and a cannon in the barn, all designated for battle for freedom.

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The Todd House in Tabor, Iowa

The Todd House has undergone renovation and is available for public tours. A note near the front doors give rates and phone numbers to contact guides.

In Lewis, about a 35-minute drive north or more than a 9-hour walk, is home to the Hitchcock House. The house, once owned by the Rev. George B. Hitchcock, is located on the outskirts of Lewis, a town with a population of about 400.

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A portrait of President Abraham Lincoln hangs in the dining room of the Hitchcock House

Rev. Hitchcock and his family housed escaped slaves starting during the 1850s. They risked violating federal law in helping people. US Marshals and bounty hunters would look for escaped slaves, so the Hitchcocks had to be careful.

It took the reverend about three years to build the house. It was made from limestone. The main living area was used by the family. They hosted church services in the living room. He helped about 200 escaped slaves find their way to freedom.

Travelers would stay in some of the family bedrooms. Mostly, they hid in the cellar. While standing in the cellar, I closed my eyes and imagined life during those times. Can you imagine the daily fear that must have gone through the minds of the people?

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Escaped slaves would stay in this cellar at the Hitchcock House

It was interesting to learn about our region’s role in the Underground Railroad. I remember studying it in school as a kid, but don’t recall being taught about our area’s role.

As we celebrate Black History this month, I recommend learning about African American history in your area.

For more information on the Nebraska and Iowa safe houses, please see:‎