“Filled to the brim.” Those words accurately describe the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio. Outside the old brick building seems typical of those found in many small towns. Inside there is so much information it would take days to just read what is hanging on the walls, let alone all the books available.
Located in the hills of Southeastern Ohio, The Underground Railroad Museum contains over 18,000 items. This particular building was constructed in 1922 as Community National Bank, then became the insurance office of John Mattox.
In 1998, Dr. Mattox decided it would be the perfect spot to share his knowledge and collection of items dealing with slavery and the Underground Railroad. He wanted to tell the story of fugitive slaves and slave hunters, and how the Underground Railroad helped the former and misled the latter.
Dr. Lorle Porter of Muskingum University played a large role in helping John establish the museum. Today, Belmont Technical College students frequently help at the museum through research, organization, and cleaning.
Stories of slavery abound here thanks to an exceptionally good story teller, Dr. John Mattox, founder and curator of the museum. John’s family had previoiusly been slaves from Holland, so he knew first hand of the life they lived. While John told his story, the outfit of a Klu Klux Klan member, displayed on a statue behind him, awakens an unpleassnt reminder. Still John had a great positive attitude as he said, “I’ll tell you ‘xactly how it was, slavery could be good.”
John told of those Sunday mornings when slaves were privileged to go to “The Big House” for breakfast. The menu most often was hot biscuits and potlikker. Now, for those of you not familiar with potlikker, that would be a pot of turnip, collard, and mustard greens boiled with a piece of pork. Pour that over some hot biscuits and you had a breakfast to look forward to all week long.
However, nearby slave collars, whips and shackles help tell the other side of the story of life as a slave. Poster advertisements were placed for auctions about to be held. Ox teams, fox hounds, and Negro slaves were all included on the same sign.
In the basement of the Underground Railroad Museum, Dr. Mattox shared his private collection of over 700 vintage cameras. His favorite seemed to be his first Polaroid, a 1970 Rolex SX70, which he used to take pictures of his wife when they went to Hawaii. An 1886 Conley and an original Brownie Camera were also part of that collection.
A replica of a slave cabin, where an average of eight people lived, has been constructed in the basement. This one tiny room was their “home” for eating, playing and sleeping. Only one bed could be seen in a corner of the room, and the “old person” got to sleep there. The rest slept on straw spread on the dirt floor.
The slaves, or those assisting through the Underground Railroad, left many signals for other slaves following their path. Sometimes a special knock on the door was used and the password, “Friend of a friend” gained them entry to safety. An X strategically placed on a tree gave the slaves direction to the next stop. Great courage was shown by those who often risked everything to escape.
The major task of the Underground Railroad operation was to get the fugitives across the Ohio River to safety. Martins Ferry was the first Ohio stop for many in 1788. The Ohio map shows that their flight continued across Ohio in every direction.
John expressed his attitude toward life by saying, “Don’t blame everyone else for what happened to you. New ideas are just old ones recycled.” He was a fantastic guide so hope he continues sharing his stories for a long time. Just the thought of losing all his knowledge reminded me of an African proverb that hung on the wall of the museum, “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” Recording our history is so important for future generations.
The easiest route to the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio is off I-70. Take Ohio Exit 208 and head north on State Highway 149. The road has many bends, but leads to Flushing, then SR149 makes a right turn on E High Street. The museum is located at 121 E. High.