Through his family, Mark Evans heard stories for years about Lewis Adams, a grandfather from several generations past who was a founding member of St. Paul African Methodist Church in Urbana.
But it wasn’t until a trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and a visit to a historical marker site in Findlay that he recognized his family had an even greater role than helping found an influential church.
With assistance from Art Thomas, a second cousin and genealogist, Evans has spent much of the last year gathering information to help recognize the achievements of his family in Champaign County’s Underground Railroad. By August, the Ohio Historical Society will likely recognize the family’s involvement in the Underground Railroad by placing a historical marker in Freedom Grove, a small park along U.S. 68.
Together, Evans and Thomas have gathered records that show that Lewis Adams and other family members spent as much as 30 years helping slaves move north toward Bellefontaine and eventually Canada as they escaped from slavery in the south.
“I don’t want my kids to not know this growing up,” said Evans, an Urbana native who now lives near Columbus.
Much of the inspiration came from a separate historical marker in Findlay. The marker in Hancock County briefly mentions David Adams, an African-American barber who watched his father and grandfather assist fugitive slaves as a child in Urbana. The marker notes that David Adams helped move scores of slaves north from Findlay.
David Adams was the son of Lewis Adams, and Evans said it occurred to him that a marker mentioned the son’s efforts, but there was little to document the father’s contributions in Urbana. With Thomas’ help, the two were able to produce a handful of records that show not only the connection between father and son, but also hint at at least one of the family’s exploits locally.
A Champaign County court record from 1853, uncovered by Thomas, describes an incident in which William Adams, another son of Lewis, was taken into custody for helping incite a riot in Champaign County. Thomas said the riot was created as a diversion that allowed Lewis Adams and others to move fugitive slaves north and slow the owners who were chasing them.
Lewis Adams, a freed slave from Kentucky, was one of the early documented African American settlers in Champaign County, Thomas said. Many residents don’t know the role that free African Americans played in the Underground Railroad, Thomas said, particularly in Champaign County. Thomas and Evans said the marker will also likely highlight the efforts of other local families who contributed to the Underground Railroad.
“What we’re trying to do really is show the involvement of folks in the Urbana and Champaign County area in the Underground Railroad,” Thomas said.
Several of the most important documents came from the Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Thomas said. Siebert was a professor at Ohio State University who collected thousands of pages of records documenting the history of the Underground Railroad in Ohio. Among those documents was a three-page interview with David Adams that helps connect him to his relatives in Champaign County.
Evans sent records, as well as a draft of the language for the marker to the Ohio Historical Society. Tameka Sheline, a staff member at the Ohio Historical Society, said the organization is reviewing all the available information for the marker to ensure its accuracy. Once the content and language is approved, it could be installed as early as August, she said. Typically, it costs between $2,300 to $2,580 to have the marker created. There are more than 1,000 markers highlighting aspects of Ohio history throughout the state, she said.
Evans is hoping once other area residents hear about the marker, they might help contribute financially to the project. But Evans is dedicated to making sure the marker goes up, regardless of cost.
“I’ve already told my wife if this didn’t happen, I would pay for it myself,” Evans said.
Working with Evans, city officials have discussed several possible locations for the marker, said Bill Bean, Urbana mayor. But Freedom Grove was eventually chosen because of its easily accessible location, and because at one time slaves moving north traveled along what is now the U.S. highway, Bean said. The park also houses other historical monuments, including the Champaign County Centennial Bell and the county’s Sept. 11 Memorial.
“Urbana and Champaign County have a lot of history, and there’s a lot that can be shared there,” Bean said.
Evans knew little about his family’s contributions to fighting slavery until recently, but his children will have much more proof about where they came from.
“All this information was around me but I could never see it,” Evans said.