Rev John Rankin

John Rankin

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When the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was asked after the Civil War who abolished slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe said it was the Rev. John Rankin and his sons.

Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, had to leave his native Tennessee and came to Ripley, Ohio, in 1822. Slave owners and hunters often viewed him as their prime suspect and appeared at his door at all hours demanding information about fugitives. He ended up moving his family to a house at the top of a 540-foot hill that provided a wide view of Ripley, the Ohio River and the Kentucky shoreline.

From there the family could raise a lantern on a flagpole to signal fleeing slaves in Kentucky when it was safe for them to cross north of the Mason-Dixon line, according to Wikipedia.

For more than 40 years, many of the 2,000 slaves who escaped to freedom through Ripley stayed at the family’s home. In 1838, Rankin told the story of a slave who walked across the frozen Ohio River with a child in her arms. Stowe modeled her character Eliza after the woman Rankin and his family helped.

Rankin’s letters to his brother, Thomas, a Virginia slaveowner, were published in book form in 1826 as “Letters on Slavery.” The letters convinced his brother to move to Ohio and free his slaves. By the 1830s, the book had become standard reading for abolitionists all over the United States.

A bounty of up to $3,000 was placed on his life and in 1841, he and his sons had to fight off attackers who came to burn his house and barn in the middle of the night, according to Wikipedia.

Rankin was mobbed and beaten and showered with rotten eggs some 20 times over the years, said Kay Rader with the Lawrence County Historical Society.

Capt. Robert C. Rankin, one of the minister’s nine sons, said all that his father did in the aid of fugitives was to furnish food and shelter. His sons did the conveying away.

He died in Ironton on March 18, 1886, in the house that currently serves as the Lawrence County Museum. He lived in the house for about five years with his granddaughter Eliza Jane Humphreys Gray and her husband, Col. George Noah Gray, a local ironmaster.

When he died in the house at 506 S. 6th St., his body lay in state in the front bay window. Ironton residents of all races and religions walked past the window to pay respects to the noted abolitionist.

His rope bed, rocking chair and desk currently are on display at the museum.