By SARAH JAQUAY
“It’s the only pre-Civil War home left in the University Circle neighborhood,” notes Elise Yablonsky, planning director of University Circle, Inc. (UCI.) Last December, Ms. Yablonsky gave my husband and me a tour of the beautifully renovated, Victorian-era building at the bottom of Mayfield Hill known as the Cozad-Bates House Interpretive Center. I was delighted to have this opportunity finally, to explore the handsome brick building at the corner of Mayfield Road and E. 115th St., with its curvilinear frontage and graceful arched windows. Ever since I started commuting downtown on the No. 9 bus way back in the ‘70s, I’d wondered about this once grand residence that’s been a rooming house, apartments and ultimately an empty shell waiting to be revived.
In 1853, Andrew Cozad built the house for his son, Justus Cozad, with sections added in the 1860s and in 1872. The area was then known as the East Cleveland township and was removed from the hustle and bustle of Euclid Avenue a few miles west downtown. Another family that settled in the neighborhood was the Fords. The Cozads and Fords were active in the Underground Railroad and in providing shelter and support to freedom seekers escaping by boat to Canada. After the Fugitive Slave Act passed, making it to the free state of Ohio was no longer the end goal. And while there’s no direct evidence the Cozad-Bates house was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, the Cozads and neighboring families were members of the Euclid Avenue Congregational Church, a known hotbed of abolitionist activity.
By the end of the 20th century, University Hospitals (UH) owned the house, but it had been vacant and neglected for the better part of 20 years. In 2006, UH donated it to UCI and a long process of stabilization and restoration began. In partnership with Restore Cleveland Hope (RCH) and the Western Reserve Historical Society, civic visionaries decided to make the Cozad-Bates House a center for interpreting the neighborhood’s and Cleveland’s critical role in helping freedom seekers before and during the Civil War. “Hope” was Cleveland’s nickname as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
According to its website, Restore Cleveland Hope “retells, promotes, and celebrates Cleveland’s Underground Railroad history. We serve as a resource to children and adults to inform and inspire them through educational programs. We act as a unifying force in the community by providing a venue for open dialogue, reflection, and reconciliation among all freedom-loving peoples.” Joan Southgate founded RCH. She’s an amazing person who walked more than 500 miles from Ripley, OH to St. Catherines, Ontario, to honor her ancestors who walked to freedom and to raise money for the Cozad-Bates renovation project (see below).
Today, visitors to the Cozad-Bates House Interpretive Center will find the interior exhibits divided into to three areas: the west wing interprets the national and local context for slavery before the Civil War. The east wing tells the stories of local anti-slavery activists, including the arrest and trial of Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson, a Cleveland resident who was the last person ever prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act. Her swift trial and return to Virginia sparked outrage and a plot to rescue her on her return south. The Key Bank Community room is the third section intended to be used for contemporary programming connecting past and present.
Joan Southgate, now in her 90s, spoke at the grand opening of Cozad-Bates Interpretive Center in August of 2021. Unfortunately, the lingering pandemic has prevented much programming from happening except outdoors on its beautiful grounds. The good news is the Cozad-Bates House Interpretive Center reopened to the public on February 5, 2022, for its usual noon-4p.m. hours on Saturdays. Masks are required and groups can arrange private tours via the Center’s website. In fact in these frigid, pandemic days of winter, anyone can take a virtual tour of the Center on their website to learn more about Cleveland’s part in helping end the scourge of slavery. This grand dame of a dwelling has been restored not only to some of its original exterior architectural glory, but it also now serves an elegant purpose as well: telling the stories of what Cleveland was like leading up to the Civil War.
Please visit https://www.universitycircle.org/cozad-bates-house-interpretive-center for more information.
Joan Southgate: Walking through history to restore hope
By Sarah Jaquay
“Who were these people? How did they do it? It really felt like they answered, ‘Walk!’” notes retired Cleveland social worker Joan Southgate in an email. Southgate took purpose-driven trekking to a whole new level in the spring of 2002 when she set out from Ripley, on the banks of the Ohio River, to retrace the steps of freedom seekers and conductors along the Underground Railroad (UGRR.) Step by step, she made her way home to Cleveland. She walked some 250 miles. Although Southgate’s ancestors might not have walked to freedom across Ohio, she knows her great-great grandparents were members of the same church Harriet Tubman belonged to in St. Catherines, Ontario.
Civil War history buffs will note Ripley is where Rev. John Rankin lived. The John Rankin House, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the best-documented and most active UGRR stops. It would have been a very appropriate place to start. The Rev. John Rankin and his nine sons helped move more people toward freedom than almost any other conductor. But freedom was a moving target for enslaved people. After the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, bounty hunters could enter free states and legally return “property” to slaveholders. So even though Cleveland’s nickname on the UGRR was “Hope,” the freedom seekers’ ultimate hope before the Civil War was to escape to Canada.
Joan’s 250-mile walk from Ripley to Cleveland was an incredible accomplishment for a 70-something grandmother, but she was just getting started. In 2003 Joan and six other women met to talk about saving the historic Cozad-Bates House in University Circle. After that, “Twenty-three people attended our first community meeting at Western Reserve Historical Society and in tribute to Cleveland’s Underground Railroad code name “Hope” our newly formed grassroots organization took the name Restore Cleveland Hope.” It became a 501(c)3 organization that worked tirelessly to raise awareness and funds to restore this Victorian-era gem that was owned and frequented by abolitionists in the neighborhood.
In 2003, Joan continued her journey and walked from Cleveland to St. Catherines, Ontario, to raise funds for restoring the Cozad-Bates House and to highlight the the last leg of the route enslaved people took through Pennsylvania and New York to Canada and freedom. St. Catherines is where the famous conductor Harriet Tubman made her home and the destination to which she helped others escape. This added another 225 miles to this sprightly grandmother’s journey.
It’s not clear how much money Joan raised, but her dream of preserving Cleveland’s history as “Hope” on the UGRR took a huge leap forward. And although Joan was part of a community effort to save the Cozad-Bates House from the wrecking ball, one could argue she took the first step toward making this happen in 2002 and the last step when she was the keynote speaker at the Cozad-Bates House Interpretive Center’s grand opening on Aug. 24, 2021. Southgate wants everyone to know “the Cozad-Bates House has been beautifully designed inside and out to tell the story of not just Cleveland’s abolitionist history, but it tells the story of both then and now. It’s a space that’s open for families or school children, a place for teaching and conversation.” The Center has recently reopened to the public for tours.