John Rankin, whose home Eliza Norris first sheltered in after escaping slavery in Kentucky and entering Ohio, was a Presbyterian minister. Presbyterians were split over the role of slavery in the nation with some supporting slavery and others supporting freedom seekers. Presbyterians living in southwestern Ohio often supported escape routes through the state. For John Rankin, the connections he had to several other Presbyterians in the state proved instrumental in successfully moving enslaved Africans north to freedom.
Because of the area’s proximity to the Ohio River, local towns were constantly patrolled by slave catchers and those who supported pro-slavery causes. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 noted that enslavers had the right to come into free states to find and capture anyone deemed their legal property. This law greatly divided those living in the north. Some felt the law was right while others felt it was inhuman to return freedom seekers who had reached free land. This opposition to the Federal Slave Law led some to become involved in the Underground Railroad as an act of defiance.
One trusted person in the Rankin family network was Reverend James Gilliland who ministered at Red Oak Presbyterian just north of Ripley, Ohio. Today, the historic 1816 church where Gilliland led a thriving parish still stands. Gilliland’s own records show that by 1830 the church was publicly declaring its anti-slavery beliefs. He allowed the church to be used for meetings and notes that members of his parish aided freedom seekers. Gilliland’s home no longer stands but was located on the church property. While we do not know whether Gilliland welcomed Eliza and her child into his home or into the Red Oak church building, this stop on our tour represents the important role abolitionist churches and their leaders played in supporting those seeking freedom. Churches raised funds, provided safe harbor, and aided those fleeing enslavement.