PREBLE COUNTY — An upcoming children’s coloring book and a festival planned for Summer 2022 will celebrate Camden, West Elkton and Fairhaven’s historic contributions to the legacy of the Underground Railroad.
According to Joanna Hahn, Site Manager of the Levi and Catharine Coffin House in Fountain City, Indiana, the Underground Railroad was a loose system of routes connected by homes, businesses, and churches where runaway slaves received assistance escaping the South and traveling north toward freedom.
Many of these freedom-seekers crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky and followed a route north along the eastern edge of Indiana and western edge of Ohio. Coffin is sometimes referred to as the President of the Underground Railroad, having helped more than 2,000 slaves escape to freedom.
According to Camden Comeback founder Shannon Steele, some of those slaves passed through Camden, Fairhaven and West Elkton on their way north to Fort Wayne and eventually Detroit. Coffin mentions the communities in his autobiography.
“We know that Camden was an important thoroughfare,” Steele said.
Though no documentation has been found concerning specific sites in Camden, the Friends Church in West Elkton and Bunker Hill House in Fairhaven were known way stations, according to Steele, and a stone plaque commemorating a third site now sits at the corner of Camden Ave. and W. Elkton Rd. The former home of abolitionist and “conductor” Jesse Stubbs also stands just outside West Elkton.
“I wanted to share the history of the Underground Railroad with the youth of southern Preble County,” Steele said of her decision to create the coloring book, which will be available online once completed, and may be distributed to fourth-graders at Preble Shawnee and other local school districts.
“I don’t think the story of this area, and what an important role we had in the history of the Underground Railroad, has been shared, or is known by many people,” Steele continued.
Polly Heinkel, Assistant Artistic Director of Cincinnati-based American Legacy Theatre, suggested partnering with the Village of Camden to secure a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts during a village council meeting held Thursday, Aug. 6.
Along with matching funds raised by theatre personnel, the grant would fund a festival centering on Camden’s connections to the Underground Railroad.
Heinkel suggested the festival could take place during Summer 2022, either on the streets or at Waterworks Park in Camden, and would bring craftspeople from the greater Cincinnati area and throughout the rest of Ohio, including blacksmiths, glassblowers and furniture-makers.
Festival attendees would also be invited to participate in one of several 20-minute “living history” tours through Camden.
“You get to experience how slaves and conductors would’ve moved through Camden in order to be safe,” Heinkel said.
Heinkel became involved in living history reenactments while pursuing her MFA in theatre.
“It’s important for us to use theatre as a tool to learn history, and to learn a lot of things,” Heinkel said. “Theatre isn’t just sitting in a stuffy seat at the Schuster Center; it can be all around you. It could be street performers at a festival. It could be anything, pretty much.”
Theatre can also provide a way to “give a voice to the voiceless,” Heinkel said. For instance, a recent partnership with the American Legacy Theatre allowed high school students from across the country to write and perform a musical about the COVID-19 pandemic, while a resident playwrite at the theatre is currently writing a musical about the opioid crisis that has ravaged the Midwest in recent years.
Heinkel will find out in April 2021 whether the grant application for the festival has been accepted.
“By bringing this history to life in Camden, I hope it brings a new appreciation for the arts, and a new appreciation of our town as well,” Heinkel said.
Reach Anthony Baker at 937-683-4057 or on Facebook or Instagram @mproperenglish