Honoring Our Region’s Underground Railroad Legacy
Henry Robert Burke is a published author, historian, volunteer, lecturer and newspaper columnist. Burke’s work is viewed as valuable slave research. He was nationally recognized as an Underground Railroad scholar until his death in 2012. “He was such a great person and a huge loss to our community,” says Amanda Mayle, Burke’s cousin.
The focus of Burke’s research on the Underground Railroad, a route of safe houses during the Civil War-era, has allowed Ohioans a greater understanding of this time period. Burke had a desire and natural ability to share his knowledge with everyone. His mission is being carried out specifically at the Belpre Historical Society’s Farmer’s Castle Museum. A staple of the “Belle Prairie” roots, the exhibit further advances the knowledge of its patrons.
The Underground Railroad organized change and expanded in the area over the course of 50 years. Caves throughout Hocking Hills, secluded basements in homes and attics and in-between floorboards were some of the hiding places for passengers. Maps of different routes and houses can be found on display. One of the substantial spots is Stone’s Overlook and Aunt Jenny’s, where she developed a system to alert abolitionist across the river that slaves were coming.
The Belpre Historical Society’s Farmer’s Castle Museum is open April through October on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. and by appointment. With a volunteer-based staff, the center relies on donations from personal, group and business donations in order to operate.
Honored with a lifetime achievement award in African American history research from the Washington County Historical Society. Burke’s work is a staple of the Southeast Ohio community. Recognized by the Friends of Freedom Society with Burke’s Conductor of the Year award in 1999, his honors spread to many states and his memory has reached thousands. “We will maintain the exhibit and his works, as long as we have the museum,” says president of the Belpre Historical Society, Nancy Sams.
Based on the research by Burke, the exhibit informs visitors how the Underground Railroad was organized, who was involved and the immense risk they took to help others. Visitors will encounter panels lining the room filled with maps, pictures, video presentations and the fascinating stories of those involved. The center hopes to “Expand the base of knowledge in the area,” says Sams.
Burke made sure to share as much information as possible with friends before his death in 2012. He created groups, held meetings with friends and associates, and made sure his work was protected and available to the masses at the Belpre Historical Society.
Over 200 years have passed, and the citizens of Washington County are still working as activists and continuing with the work of Burke. “His life work was to promote and reach people, “Teaching about the Underground Railroad and the work of the abolitionist movement,” says Sams.
Though a private person, Burke expressed his knowledge and links to the past to anyone who would listen, he was not shy about putting it out there. Anthony Mayle, a cousin of Burke says, “He was not only a family member, but a mentor, and a father figure.” Mayle works as a board member of the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill.
Mayle works to continue Burke’s work by inspiring and celebrating diversity and multicultural history throughout the Southeast Ohio area. He is also helping to uncover a possible station to the Underground Railroad. Mayle spreads his knowledge and assists as a guide by holding lecturers and discussions, mentoring and writing to educate the masses on African American culture and heritage, and also working to create an environment of equality and significance of life, liberating the confolds of the mind.
Abolitionists like, James and Margaret Smith of Belpre, gave aid and comfort to hundreds of runaway slaves in the Civil War-era. Their selflessness is not only commendable, it is admired. Their work speaks volumes of “loving thy neighbor.” They did not stick to the confines of what norms they were presented with. Noble volunteers risked their lives and safety to make our nation greater, using their revolutionary minds to exhaust change in a nation that did not value the lives of slaves.
Abolitionists have acted as beacons of change and set the foundation for other righteous foundations to follow. Their work in advocating that no man is property, no man should be treated as less than, and no man is better than another can be seen today in the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter is a national movement working for the validity of black life and building the black liberation movement.
The son of Henry, Paul Burke says, “My dad believed that Black Lives Matter his entire life.” Way before there was a slogan, Paul recalls that his dad wanted young people specifically to know their history. He wanted a tightly woven community of knowledgeable people on the truth of African American’s roles in history and their importance in society today.
The stories of the slaves and the abolitionists are not restricted to the bricks of the simple BHC building, but in the houses, the caves, the trees, the river, the land and the people of Southeast Ohio. The descendants of change-agents and current volunteers like Nancy Sams, Anthony Mayle and Paul Burke.
“My dad was superman…He always wanted to make a mark on young people to make sure they understand” says Paul Burke.