Secret Columbus: Columbus' Stop on the Underground Railroad
In the drawing room of the Kelton House on East Town Street, east of Washington Avenue, is a lithograph that depicts a procession of mourners outside the Ohio Statehouse, where Abraham Lincoln's casket lay waiting for thousands of Ohioans coming to pay their respects. Near the bottom of the print, 14 pallbearers carry the casket to the Statehouse, and in the upper corners of the print, a yellowed armband and badge are tucked into the frame. Fernando Cortez Kelton was one of the men carrying Lincoln's body that day; he wore the strips of fabric on his solemn funeral clothes. Though there's no proof Kelton ever met Lincoln, says Georgeanne Reuter, director of the Kelton House Museum & Garden, one thing is certain: Lincoln and Kelton were abolitionists. We know this because Kelton and his family helped protect at least one runaway slave in their home.
"We knew that the family had this history, but a very fluky thing happened that led us to knowing exactly who one of the people was," Reuter says. In the 1970s, when Grace Kelton-Fernando and wife Sofia's granddaughter-was in her 90s, she was contacted by the family of James Lawrence. Lawrence's wife had been rummaging in the attic of their Bexley home when she came across a handful of mysterious photos. She asked her husband, "Who are these white people?" Lawrence replied, "That's the family that helped my grandmother after she escaped slavery." Lawrence's grandmother, Martha, was just 10 years old when she was found in shrubbery and brought into the Kelton home by Sofia, and she lived with the family until she was 20. She then married Fernando Kelton's carpenter, Thomas Lawrence, and over time the families lost contact.
Hearing about this serendipitous family connection is just one of the highlights of a tour of the Kelton House. The home-which, in addition to sharing its Underground Railroad history, serves as a museum of decorative arts-offers docent-led tours by appointment. keltonhouse.com