A couple of former Cleveland Browns players and their families, in town for this weekend's River Rats Browns Backers Celebrity Golf Outing, took some time out Friday to learn about Marietta's role along the Underground Railroad.
"My grandmother in Alabama was a descendant of slaves," said former Browns defensive back Ben Davis of Cleveland who met local historian Henry Burke at the Levee House Cafe, accompanied by wife, Sylvia Davis, and their grandson, Ben IV.
Later, Burke planned to take the visitors to some Underground Railroad sites in the area.
SAM SHAWVER The Marietta Times
Local historian Henry Burke, center, discusses the Underground Railroad and related topics with former Cleveland Browns players Ben Davis, left, and George Lilja in the Perry West African Art Collection room at the Ely Chapman Center in Marietta.
"Until recently the history of African Americans has not been too well documented," Davis said. "And as a family, we've traveled as far as Africa to try to understand more about our ancestors."
Former offensive lineman George Lilja, his daughter, Bethany, and son, Duke, from Hudson, near Cleveland, were also interested in the Underground Railroad, which Burke explained was a series of stations or safe havens developed in the early to mid-1800s to help runaway slaves escape their taskmasters in the southern United States.
"There are several Underground Railroad stations in the Hudson area," Lilja said, noting that the town was one of the last stops for slaves before they boarded boats to cross Lake Erie into Canada.
Bethany, 16, a history buff in her own right, said students from Hudson learn about the Underground Railroad early on in their school years.
"There's even a section of our library dedicated to the history of slavery," she said.
From the Levee House dining room, Burke gestured across the Ohio River to Williamstown.
"Before 1863, we called that the western area of Virginia, and the river was considered the Mason-Dixon Line (between north and south)," he said. "Most of the slaves who came through this area came from Virginia and other border states."
Burke noted that Marietta was settled by New Englanders, most of whom were abolitionists opposed to the slavery that was taking place just across the river in western Virginia, where George Washington Henderson, owner of the Henderson Hall plantation in Boaz, had 116 slaves at one point.
According to Burke, the Underground Railroad gradually evolved between 1812 and 1820 as abolitionists sought to move slaves from southern farms and plantations into the lower Canadian provinces where slavery had been outlawed since 1806.
He said the railroad did not always follow the same series of homes, churches, businesses and other stations. Often slaves followed a zigzag pattern using different stations each time to keep bounty hunters from locating where the runaways were being hidden.
"Once the slaves made it to northern Ohio, the bounty hunters may as well have given up as there were so many abolitionists to assist the runaways," Burke said.