Hidden History: Traveling along Salem’s section of the Underground Railroad

Salem's Freedom Hall houses an exact replica of a hiding spot that slaves would have taken refuge in

The Underground Railroad played a big part in getting slaves to freedom in the 1800s, it even had a few stops right here in the Valley.

SALEM, Ohio (WKBN) – The Underground Railroad played a big part in getting slaves to freedom in the 1800s, it even had a few stops right here in the Valley.

The city of Salem, founded in 1806, helped play a role in many individuals’ journey to freedom.

Jeanne Martinelli, the docent for the Salem Historical Society’s “Quaker Trolley,” took WKBN First News Reporter Cameron O’Brien on a tour of Salem’s section of the Underground Railroad.

Before Martinelli started leading tours, she used to go on them with her Sebring Elementary students, going so often that they eventually got in for free.

She now dresses up as a Quaker for each tour, transporting people back to the 1800s.

The first stop on the tour is the Daniel Howell Hise House. Hise was a prominent abolitionist and an Underground Railroad conductor.

He added 50 windows, seven doors and six staircases to his home to camouflage the slaves hiding inside.

“Say you were searching for runaways, you would not be able to tell when you’re inside the house exactly where you were in relationship to where it looked like you were on the outside,” said Ginger Grilli, president of the Salem Historical Society.

Another house on the tour is called the John Street House, located on the corner of Ellsworth Avenue and Sixth Street.

Slaves were able to pass through the house through a tunnel system, never going through the front door.

“They didn’t usually sit in the parlor or the kitchen where they would be seen. They were hidden away while they were in the house,” Grilli said.

Along with taking a tour on the Quaker Trolley, people can also visit Freedom Hall, Salem Historical Society’s museum.

The second floor houses slavery and abolition artifacts. There is also an exact replica of a hiding spot that slaves would have taken refuge in. The spot, located in the corner of the second floor, looks like a regular bookshelf.

“It’s built so that the door will open and inside you can see there’s a spot where someone could hide,” Grilli said.

But, knowing where to hide was half the battle.

Some Salem Underground Railroad conductors would follow the African tradition of hanging quilts outside of their homes. These quilts hid secret messages that slaves could interpret. For example, the “Drunkards Path” pattern on a quilt would tell slaves to not travel in a straight line because “evil travels in straight lines.”

“It just fascinates me how creative these people were, the bravery behind what they were doing. The risk they were taking was unreal,” Martinelli said.

More than 175 years later, Grilli says Salem’s hidden history could not be more relevant, saying the fight for equal rights is far from over.

“The notion of equality is critical today. It’s a source of tension and conflict and it has a lot of similarities to the struggles we faced in the past,” she said.

That’s why Grilli and Martinelli say they will continue to share the painful and triumphant history of Salem’s Underground Railroad.

“You know, a lot of people just want to teach the good things. But, you have to know what happened so you don’t repeat the bad stuff…” Martinelli said.

“…and how we can use that to get to the places we want to be as a population,” Grilli added.

Visit the Salem Historical Society’s website for a complete list of tour dates and times.

For more stories in honor of Black History Month, check out our special section on WKBN.com.

Also, join Mandy Noell and Cameron O’Brien for a WKBN 27 First News special presentation — The Valley’s Hidden History. The 30-minute show will air Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on FOX Youngstown.

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