Urban Roots Podcast Launches Third Season

The series shines a light on Ohio’s river cities that supported the Emancipation movement in honor of Juneteenth.
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JUNE 2024

IMAGE COURTESY OF URBANIST MEDIA

For people who risked peril and death crossing the Mason-Dixon line to freedom from slavery, the Ohio River was like the Jordan River in that it offered the hope of emancipation. Although Ohio was a free state, freedom was not guaranteed and slaves could be apprehended by law, according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In spite of this, southwestern Ohio cities along the river like Ripley, New Richmond, and Cincinnati not only served as enslaved African Americans’ first network of safety, but they also became places to establish communities.

In commemoration of Juneteenth, two episodes from the Urban Roots podcast’s third season highlight significant historic figures and communities of the abolitionist movement. As part of the non-profit community preservation collaborative, Urbanist Media, Urban Roots is hosted by history preservationist Deqah Hussein-Wetzel and produced by cities journalist Vanessa Quirk.

For the duo, unearthing the stories of African Americans around the U.S. is like doing the Lord’s work in a social justice sense because they have answered the call to elevate and preserve the stories of underrepresented people. As urbanism journalists, they say these stories have been historically undervalued or lost due to social factors such as urban redevelopment, race, class and lack of comprehensive archival research. Despite these challenges, they have found ways to comprehensively chronicle these neglected histories and share them across multiple platforms.

“Being able to be on Cincinnati Public Radio is really important to us because I think it helps get this information history across through the public lens,” Quirk says. “That’s a reach that’s even a step further from what we and what podcasts can do by themselves.”

Some of the physical resources that helped Hussein-Wetzel map out the history of the Underground Railroad were the John Parker House and the John Rankin House, which are museums in Ripley named after abolitionists. She says that she and Quirk also visited Berkeley, Ohio’s museums and learned about lesser heralded people from the movement, which is explored in the podcast episodes.

“John Rankin was somebody who a lot of people might know about because he was a white abolitionist,” Hussein-Wetzel explains. “But John Parker is somebody people don’t know that much about—as well as people like Polly Jackson—and people that we’ve just started to learn more about that are African Americans who really did help people escape.

“Some were conductors, for example, John Rankin, some were more like extractors, people who just kind of helped shuffle people to get them into safety for a period of time before they can kind of go on to the next place. And New Richmond, Ohio has a similar history with a number of white abolitionists who were really influential in helping people escape slavery.”

Quirk says the first Urban Roots episode also centers around the role that Black conductors played in the Underground Railroad movement and the reasons why with the exception of Harriet Tubman, their histories are so scarcely mentioned in history books.

“They have been under looked because there’s so few,” she adds. “There’s just so little information about them, and there’s good reasons for that, because they were doing incredibly dangerous work, and so they would destroy any evidence of what they were doing.”

“And if you were white doing this work, you could be jailed, and you could be fined. So, you were going to be careful, but if you were Black doing this work, you were probably going to be killed. So, you were extra careful, and you were very meaningful about communicating in ways that couldn’t be discovered. From a historical perspective, that means that it’s a lot harder to find information on Black underground railroad workers, but they do exist.”

The New Richmond episode observes how the city used to be 20 percent Black during the late 1800s and was vibrant, whereas, as Quirk mentions, there are only several Black families living there today. She stresses that Ohio was once a dangerous place for Black people to settle because of its proximity to Kentucky and the threat of being captured by indiscriminate slave catcher who would steal any Black person, enslaved or free. Furthermore, settling in places like New Richmond literally came at a cost.

“You also had to pay fines to be Black in Ohio,” Quirk says. “Five hundred dollars for the ‘privilege’ of being Black and living in Ohio. So there was lots of reasons not to stay in New Richmond and to go further north to safer places or more amenable places.”

In conjunction with the podcast, four new 90-second Juneteenth Cincinnati Shorts will air Wednesdays on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered throughout June. The full-length episodes will play on Wednesday, June 19, during Cincinnati Edition on 91.7 WVXU.

All seasons of Urban Roots are available on AppleStitcherSpotifyPocket Casts, and on YouTube.

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