The Rankin House, located in Ripley, Ohio, was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, which provided safe houses for slaves who were escaping to Canada. A National Historic Landmark, the Rankin House is included in the National Underground Railroad to Freedom Network.
The Rankin House stands on a large hill, almost 650 feet above the water level of the river. John Rankin would stand at the top of this hill, known as Liberty Hill, and signal across the Ohio River with a lantern or candle. This would let slaves in Kentucky know that it was safe to cross the river. Because the house was so high above the water, slaves could see the signal from miles away. Most of the slaves who traveled through Ripley stayed at the Rankin House because the Ohio River is relatively narrow at Ripley, making the crossing easier for slaves.
Built in 1825, the Rankin House was home to abolitionist and Presbyterian minister John Rankin, his wife Jean, and their thirteen children. It is estimated that over 2000 slaves stayed at the Rankin House, sometimes as many as twelve at a time. Slavery was illegal in Ohio, but runaway slaves could still be apprehended due to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. In order to avoid danger, slaves had to leave the United States.
Born February 4th, 1793 in Tennessee, John Rankin was a Presbyterian minister and an important conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was active in the abolitionist movement throughout his life, beginning with his formation of an anti-slavery society in Carlisle, Kentucky in 1818. After preaching in Kentucky for several years, Rankin and his family moved to Ripley. While living in Ripley, he published Letters on American Slavery, a collection of letters he had written to the local paper. These letters were later printed in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
In 1835, he helped found the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in Zanesville. Rankin and his fellow founders employed lecturers to spread abolitionist sentiment in Ohio. They also partnered with James Birney’s abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, to increase awareness about the society and its work. Initially, the group experienced great success, growing to over ten thousand members in its first year. However, they also faced opposition from the pro-slavery movement. Angry pro-slavery advocates destroyed Birney’s printing press to prevent The Philanthropist from being published. There are also records of mob violence occurring at the society’s meetings and members being personally targeted. Opponents of the society once shaved the tail and mane of Rankin’s horse to embarrass him. However, Rankin and his cofounders were undeterred. They continued to publish The Philanthropist and spread their message throughout Ohio.
In addition to the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society, Rankin also helped establish the Free Presbyterian Church of America, which prohibited slave owners from becoming members, and the Ripley Anti-Slavery Society. In 1828, he helped found the College of Ripley. The next year, the college admitted its first African-American student. Though not confirmed, it is also believed that Ulysses S. Grant was a student at the college during the winter of 1838-1839.
Rankin continued to lecture, preach, and write against slavery for many years. He died March 18th, 1886, in Ironton, Ohio and is buried with his wife in Ripley’s Maplewood Cemetery.
Rankin’s work was acknowledged by many of his abolitionist peers, including William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe based the character Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Rankin’s account of a slave who had stopped at his house after crossing the Ohio River with her child.