This 80-Year-Old Grandma Walked Hundreds of Miles to Retrace the Underground Railroad.


A candle in this window at The Rev. John Rankin’s house overlooking the small village of Ripley, Ohio, was a beacon of hope for slaves attempting to travel to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Joan Southgate, retired Cleveland social worker and grandmother of nine, used to walk a daily mile for exercise—“an old lady stroll,” as she described it. Then one day she felt a calling to praise her ancestors who walked hundreds of miles to freedom: She decided to retrace their steps along the Underground Railroad.

In 2002, at age 73, Southgate began walking the 519 miles from Ripley, Ohio  to St. Catharines, Ontario, Harriet Tubman’s terminus on the Underground Railroad. Traveling 10 miles a day, she visited Underground Railroad sites, gave presentations at schools, and slept in the homes of welcoming strangers, her own “safe houses.”


The Rev. John Rankin and his family helped hundreds of escaped slaves by using their house on a hill as a stop on Ohio’s Underground Railroad.

Cleveland’s Underground Railroad codename was “Hope” and Southgate, motivated by her pilgrimage, founded Restore Cleveland Hope to save the city’s only remaining Underground Railroad house from demolition. To raise money for the project, Southgate, at age 80, walked another 250 miles from Canada back to Cleveland, completing the final mile with 170 companions inspired by her journey.

The house will open next year as an Underground Railroad teaching center where Southgate hopes people will learn “what is possible in the way of changing the world and loving people.”

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