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The Scarlet & Black

Underground Railroad lecture enlightens town history

We often think of Grinnell as a community dedicated to social justice, but rarely do we talk about the town’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. On Tuesday evening, Douglas W. Jones, archaeologist at State Historical Society of Iowa, spoke to a crowded room at Drake Community Library about the involvement of Grinnell and other central Iowa communities in aiding escaped slaves on their way north during the 19th century.

“Grinnell was a major hub in Iowa for Underground Railroad activity,” Jones said. “It was on one of the main lines through the state of Iowa for Underground Railroad routes, and you had a lot of people who were willing to help who were staunch abolitionists and thought that slavery was wrong and needed to be ended now.”

Jones explained that, although all of the people he mentioned were local to central Iowa, they were in no respect small figures in the slavery discussion and were often part of the national picture at the time. In fact, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska were frequently headlined in the East Coast newspapers of the time.

“I think the significance today is trying to understand what these people were thinking,” Jones said. “They were risking their own well being and their property to assist people that were disenfranchised. Although they did not have any rights and were trying to seek the same opportunities that everyone else had, they were willing to help these people. They didn’t care what happened. Regardless of outcome, they were going to do this.”

In particular, Jones focused on the abolitionists called Equal Rights Advocates, who not only considered slavery wrong but pushed for complete political and social equality for the African American community in the mid-nineteenth century.

Jones also mentioned Josiah Grinnell, founder of Grinnell College, as instrumental in the Underground Railroad along with Isaac Brandt, Edmund Booth, Edward Russell, William Penn Clarke and multiple generations of Ann Coppoc Raley’s family.

“We don’t really know too much about some of these people,” Jones said, “Because they didn’t write much, so a lot of this is going back and doing research and trying to figure out what these people thought.”

For example, there was relatively little information about Isaac Brandt until the finding of a text his daughter wrote at the age of 102. Much of this information is still being uncovered and researched, so it is a pivotal time to be examining and learning about Iowan history.

Marilyn Kennett, Assistant Librarian at Drake Library, helped bring Jones to Grinnell after seeing an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about the Iowa Freedom Trail Project.

“I just thought that it would fit in well with our Louisa May Alcott series of programs, with Alcott being an abolitionist and J. B. Grinnell also being an abolitionist,” Kennett said.

After the lecture, Karen Thomson, an attendant, expressed her renewed pride in being a native of Grinnell. “I’m so proud to have been born and raised here. I think we have such a rich history in this little tiny central town in Grinnell, Iowa,” she said. “It amazes me how we’ve evolved and how the College was formed and I just love this history.”

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    Harry LangNov 5, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Is there any evidence that Edmund Booth was involved in the Underground Railroad? Is this the Edmund Booth of Anamosa? I would greatly appreciate any reference.

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