Thursday, February 4, 2016

Black History Month: John Rankin

Slaves fleeing north in the 1840's had to wait at the Ohio River, in hiding, trembling in fear, until they saw the light of a lantern across the river.  It was safe.  They could come across, because shelter was waiting for them.

The lantern belonged to John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, a Southerner by birth, and who was an abolitionist.

He was born on February 4, 1793 (223 years ago today!) in Tennessee.  Although he lived in the South during his early life, he began preaching against slavery after becoming a minister in 1817. Church leaders warned Rankin that he should never preach such views in Tennessee and, as a result, he and his family moved to Kentucky.  He ministered to the Concord Presbyterian Church, an antislavery congregation, until financial problems and growing personal danger caused him to relocate to Ripley, Ohio.

Not long after moving to Ripley, Rankin discovered that his brother Thomas, who lived in Virginia, owned slaves.  He wrote a series of letters that became known as Letters on Slavery.  They were originally published in the Castigator, Rankin's hometown paper, but in 1826, the letters were published in book form.

Rankin founded Ripley College in 1829, and two years later, he enrolled the school's first African-American student.  As a result, some students left Ripley College and didn't return.  

Rankin decided to "put his money where his mouth was", so to speak, and opened his home to runaway slaves.  In 1838, he helped a slave who escaped by crossing the Ohio River with her baby in her arms.  That woman, and that event, became the model for Eliza, the runaway slave, in Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Ripley's home--the one where the lantern shone--became one of the main stopping points on the Underground Railroad.  His notoriety grew to such a point that a $3000 bounty was placed on his head, and his home was often targeted by hunters demanding to search for fugitive slaves.  But never once was a slave recaptured that reached Ripley.

Rankin kept preaching and speaking out against slavery.  He, along with ten other Midwestern ministers, founded the Free Presbytery of Ripley, and then eventually united into the Free Synod of Cincinnati, later known as the Free Presbyterian Church.  

He died on March 18, 1886.  He supported the cause of abolition by holding the lantern that signaled "safety", and he lived to see that cause validated.

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