Reverend John Rankin of Ripley, Ohio wrote those words in a series of letters to his brother Thomas Rankin. Rankin published the letters in a book titled, Letters on American Slavery. This work is one of the most important examples of early American abolitionist ideology. Rankin’s book became the platform for numerous abolitionist organizations and the tenet of nationally distinguished organizers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis Tappan, and Sam May.
Although Rankin and his colleagues in Ripley worked tirelessly to assist slaves who ran from their masters or slave catchers, they did not have the total support of the town’s citizens. According to Ripley abolitionist John Parker,“the town itself was pro-slavery as well as the country around it. In fact,the country was so antagonistic to abolitionism at this time [late-1830s] we could only take the fugitives out of town and through the country along definite and limited routes.” Founded on the Ohio River, Ripley eventually became synonymous with abolition efforts through the immortalizing of its location in Uncle Toms Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Between the years 1820-1850, Rev. Rankin estimated that over 2000 runaway slaves crossed the Ohio into Ripley only to keep moving further northward toward the Canadian border.
The main intent for the creation of this website is to analyze why Reverend John Rankin, one of the key founders of the American abolitionist movement, is all but forgotten from a national historical perspective. Why was Rankin relegated into historical obscurity in the American collective memory of abolitionism? And finally, was the town of Ripley, unique in its dichotomous ideologies regarding supporters of anti-slavery and antagonism for the abolitionists?
Historian Larry Gara argued, “The relatively few slaves who did escape were primarily dependent on their own
resources,” and “abolitionists had no centralized organization, either for spiriting away slaves or for any other of their activities.” While Gara maybe correct in some circumstances, his thesis is flawed. By examining Rankin, his ideologies, community, neighbors, and associates, it clearly shows that Rankin created a centralized organization of Underground Railroad activities in his hometown Ripley, Ohio. Additionally, through Rankin’s national abolitionist activities, Ripley eventually became the borderland town of freedom for hundreds of runaway slaves seeking asylum in northern Ohio or onto Canada.
Explore Reverend Rankin's biography, then examine the various aspects of Ripley through the facets of everyday life. Through analyzing the varied industries, trades, and organizations, one will begin to view a synchronicity of Rankin and his beloved town, Ripley. Question the location of the town, the surrounding topography, and the Ohio River’s constant flux of travelers. Did all these factors help mold the varied ideologies Ripley or was it solely Rankin's inexhaustible determination to abolish slavery during the early nineteenth century?
Borderlander of Light
By: Donna B. Jacobson, University of Connecticut
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