Columbus Family's Underground Railroad History Remembered - NBC4: Columbus, Ohio News, Weather, and Sports (WCMH-TV)

Columbus Family's Underground Railroad History Remembered

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This Black History Month, NBC4's Candice Lee gives you a look back at how a Columbus family helped fugitive slaves escape during the mid-19th Century.

Fernado and Sophia Kelton were conductors on the Underground Railroad, hiding an untold number of slaves at their Columbus home at 586 E. Town St.

It was the last residence on the street, surrounded by pasture.

The Keltons were a well-known Columbus family during the 19th Century.

The home now serves as a museum and provides a glimpse into their lives.

"The third generation of the Kelton family, that was Grace Kelton, who was alive in the 20th Century, she recognized how important it was to have a home that had been in one family for over three generations, and was still filled with their furnishings, their paintings and their china, silver, crystal," said Georgeanne Reuter, executive director of the Kelton House Museum.

The Keltons moved into the house in 1852. They were avid church-goers and books on shelves prove the family loved classical literature, and included books on abolition.

"We know that Fernado Kelton did belong to abolitionist societies. His name can be seen in articles where the citizens of Columbus were called to meet to protest," Reuter said.

In 1850, Congress passed the fugitive slave act, which required citizens to turn in fugitive slaves.

Sometime after that law was passed, Fernado and Sophia's home became another stop on the Underground Railroad. Exactly when that happened and how many slaves they helped remains a mystery because details were never written down in diaries, nor were they discussed except among family members.

What is known is that in 1864, Sophia spotted runaway slave Martha Hartway from Virginia hiding in her bushes. She and her sister were trying to escape to Canada.

"She was taken in and apparently was sickly and she lived here until she was 20 when she married Thomas Lawrence, who was a free black carpenter," Reuter said.

The important piece of Central Ohio history would have been lost if not for some photos in an attic, kept in secret by James Lawrence, grandson of Martha and Thomas, and found by his wife, Ruth.

"In 1970, the last year that Grace Kelton was alive … Ruth Lawrence called Grace Kelton and said, 'My husband tells me that your family helped his family,' and Grace apparently said, 'Why, we always wondered what happened to the children and the grandchildren,'" Reuter said.

Now, thousands of school children file into the Kelton House Museum to learn about the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad.

The basement of the house serves as a stage for a living history presentation.

Mary Oellermann serves and the education coordinator and dresses up as Sophia Kelton three times each day.

"This true story is about a child doing something so they automatically relate to it. Many of the children are third, fourth-graders, so they are the same age as Martha. So they can start thinking and putting themselves into Martha's place," Oellermann said.

The Kelton House is part of the East Town Street Historic District, thanks to the Junior League of Columbus.

The historical marker that sits in the yard tells the compelling story of human kindness and American history.

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