Underground Railroad, slavery focus of discussion

WHEELING – John Mattox firmly believes that to have any idea where you’re going, you must understand where you’ve been.

It was that conviction that led Mattox, whose great-grandmother was a slave in Raleigh, N.C., to open the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio, about 20 years ago. Mattox spoke Thursday at West Virginia Northern Community College as part of the school’s events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was officially observed Monday.

Mattox has dedicated his career to preserving the memory of the Underground Railroad – the network of secret routes and safe houses used by escaped slaves, at great risk to themselves and mostly under the cover of night, to seek freedom in the North or even Canada – and its ties to the Ohio Valley.

As he discussed early America’s history, he pointed out that Wheeling had its own bustling slave auction block, at 10th and Market streets, in sight of the historic Suspension Bridge.

Even though slaves were bought and sold in downtown Wheeling, Mattox said there were many blacks in the area who were free. But that freedom could sometimes be tenuous, Mattox noted, as a sign near the old auction block read “Unattended children will be sold as slaves.”

“This could happen. It did happen. We have documentation,” he said.

But the Ohio Valley was also rife with places where slaves could seek refuge on their journey to freedom, including the Joel Wood and Jacob Van Pelt houses in Martins Ferry, the Quaker meeting house in Mount Pleasant and others. Many of these sites are stops on guided tours of four to five hours arranged through the museum.

Admission is free to the museum, where Mattox acts as storyteller and invites visitors to share their own stories with him. And unlike at other museums, patrons are encouraged to handle some of the artifacts in order to help the past to come to life.

“I want you to feel. I want you to touch. When I show you a yoke, I want you to know that someone’s neck was in that yoke,” Mattox said.

Mattox’s talk traced the struggle for racial equality through the abolition of slavery by the 13th Amendment, the formation of the Ku Klux Klan by former Confederate leaders, the enforcement of “Jim Crow” laws aimed at preventing blacks from voting and exercising other constitutional rights, until the present.

The election of Barack Obama as America’s first black president, he said, was an event that as a child, he never predicted he would see.

“Look how far we have come. … No matter what comes out of it, it’s a great day for America,” Mattox said of Obama’s presidency.

He added that as a youth, he found that because of the color of his skin he could not do many of the things he wanted to.

“Today I can, and I am blessed for that,” Mattox said.