Historian speaks on slavery, rights

BETHANY – On the day honoring the civil rights leader who worked tirelessly for the equality of blacks and other minorities, Bethany College staff, students and visitors heard about the efforts of black slaves to gain their freedom many years earlier.

As guest speaker for Martin Luther King Day, John Mattox, founder and curator of the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio, said few know racial discrimination can be found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

He cited the third clause of the amendment’s second section, which noted each state’s representation in Congress should be determined by that state’s population of free people and “three fifths of all other persons.”

It wasn’t until 1870 that Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which prohibited any citizen from being denied the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

It would be some time before most black slaves would enjoy that right and others, but some sought freedom through the Underground Railroad, a series of homes that offered them refuge as they escaped their former lives of forced servitude, Mattox related.

He noted the Tri-State Area played a role in both sides of the slavery issue. “Bonnie Belmont,” a book by Judge John S. Cochran, describes how groups of slaves were marched in chains to an auction block at 10th and Market streets in Wheeling.

There also were area residents who were abolitionists, opponents of slavery. Some, often Quakers or members of the Methodist or Presbyterian churches, secretly opened their homes to the slaves.

The secret routes to freedom became known as the Underground Railroad, with the home owners called conductors and the refugee slaves, passengers.

The Jacob Van Pelt house near Martins Ferry was the first stop for those venturing west of the Ohio River and there were several others in Smithfield, Hopedale, Cadiz, St. Clairsville, Barnesville and Morristown, Mattox noted.

He said he and other members of a group called the Friends of Freedom Society are attempting to ensure the preservation of the Jacob Holloway home in Flushing, an Underground Railroad stop he said could be razed to accommodate natural gas drilling.

Mattox said fugitive slaves used the Ohio River and the constellations to find their way north.

“Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a spiritual sung by slaves on the plantations advised potential runaways to watch for the Big Dipper overhead, while “Wade in the Water” served as reminder that bloodhounds could not pick up their scent if they walked in the river, Mattox said.

He noted it was common for the spirituals to contain double meanings. For example, “Go Down Moses” relates the conflict between the Israelites and the Egyptians, with Moses telling the pharaoh “let my people go!”

While the song was seen as a rallying cry by the slaves, their owners “would listen, thinking what a nice little song,” Mattox said.

He said fleeing into a “free” state didn’t guarantee freedom for the runaway slaves.

Mattox noted the Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in 1850 held law enforcement officers responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their owners and even offered incentives for doing so.

Under the law those who assisted the slaves could be jailed and fined.

Mattox encouraged the audience to ask questions and was asked why the efforts of human rights activist Malcolm X are overshadowed in textbooks by those of King.

Mattox said there is much material on Malcolm X available, and he should be studied as a part of history, but it was King’s principle of civil disobedience and love for all humans that helped to win equal rights for blacks.

He noted King once said he’d seen too much hate in the faces of those who opposed the civil rights movement.

Atraile Brown, president of the college’s Black Alliance Club and a senior psychology major, said he’s interested in both Malcolm X and King but believes King’s was the most effective approach.

“You’ve got to have a little more than hate because hate doesn’t get you anywhere,” he said.

Brown, who introduced Mattox, was among several students who participated in the program, with the others offering quotes from famous speeches given by King.

Earlier in the day students were encouraged to sign pledges to perform community service, following King’s call to serve others.

Near the end of his talk, Mattox said he discovered in his own community that someone was distributing a leaflet from the Ku Klux Klan attempting to defame King.

Mattox said the group has a Constitutional right to free speech and he brings it up “not to make you angry. This is to make you understand. This is real. Don’t get angry. Just realize we have a long way to go.”

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com)