By Diane Smith
Record-Courier staff writer
As he searches through public records, old newspapers and diaries, James Caccamo is on a hunt for felons of the past who escaped the long arm of the law while helping people escape to freedom.
Caccamo is regional coordinator of the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, overseeing the East Region, which includes Portage, Summit, Stark, Wayne, Ashland, Medina and Carroll counties.
The organization researches and documents underground railroad sites in Ohio, a task that can be difficult because people feared prosecution and covered their tracks.
This is felony activity, he said. People didnt keep a paper trail.
Nonetheless, Portage County was a hotbed of abolitionist activity, and two places in Portage County have been marked by the underground railroad organization. In Kent, a site flag at Tannery Park marks the site of abolitionist John Browns tannery. Last week, Randolph, became the first site in Portage County and the 14th statewide to be honored with an historic marker, honoring the communitys commitment to shelter runaway slaves.
Caccamo is convinced that Randolph is just the tip of the iceberg.
Ohio is probably one of the most important states in the underground railroad, he said. There was a wealth of activity all throughout Portage County.
Caccamos underground railroad work is just one of his many tasks. He also is director of the Kent Historical Society and is archivist at the Hudson library.
His research in Hudson led him to write a book about that citys underground railroad history, which caught the eye of the Ohio Underground Railroad Association, which invited him to a state convention.
My life was over after that, he said.
Portage County was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity because of its strong roots in Congregationalism, a denomination that believed that slavery was a sin.
The more I dig, the more I appreciate what these people went through, he said. Nobody in Portage County was ever prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Law.
The Fugitive Slave Law made it a felony to help a slave escape, and imposed up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. It was frequently enforced in Southern Ohio, but authorities were less successful in the north.
They found it difficult to enforce because the anti-slavery sentiment was so strong, he said. Any sheriff in the Western Reserve who tried to prosecute it was run out in the next election.
The closest Portage County ever came to having such a case was in 1847, Caccamo. When slave catchers came for two fugitive slaves who were being held in a home in Randolph, residents came in from all directions, shouting at them and threatening the kidnappers with farm implements.
In Randolph, members of the Portage County Anti-Slavery Society signed a statement declaring that they would openly invite all who are now in slavery or may have made their escape, if need be, to throw themselves into our arms and houses for protection and we pledge ourselves that come what may loss of property, or even life we will give them the same protection we would our wives, husbands or children.
When researchers first began to document underground railroad sites in Randolph, they thought they might come up with six sites. So far, a dozen have been documented.
He said Kent and Ravenna also could make a strong case for their underground railroad history. But those cities are victims of modern development, which has displaced many old buildings that were once stops on the Underground Railroad. In Kent, the Joshua Woodard house on Fairchild Avenue is the only building on the Underground Railroad that is still standing. The Cuyahoga House on Mantua Street was razed and Diggers Restaurant has been put in its place. Browns tannery was also razed and the site was turned into Tannery Park.
Caccamo said the Underground Railroad is a part of American history that should never be forgotten.
Those stories are very important to telling us how we behave as Americans our love of freedom, our love of justice, he said.
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