Nancy Stearns Theiss, director of the Oldham County History Center, presents Retired Col. Glen Fisher, a World War II veteran and owner of the property that once was the Gatewood Plantation, with a certificate designating the site as part of the National Underground Railroad Network. The plantation is located east of the city of Bedford. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
Nancy Stearns Theiss, director of the Oldham County History Center, presents Retired Col. Glen Fisher, a World War II veteran and owner of the property that once was the Gatewood Plantation, with a certificate designating the site as part of the National Underground Railroad Network. The plantation is located east of the city of Bedford. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
It might seem unusual to honor the history of a place where slaveholders lived, but those places are also a part of the story of the Underground Railroad.

And that’s why, on Friday, Sheri Jackson, the southeast region coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, came to Bedford to add the Gatewood Plantation to the program.

The former plantation, now owned by Ret. Col. Glen Fisher, was where anti-slavery activist Henry Bibb and his first wife, Malinda, lived and worked for their owner, William Gatewood. Bibb first escaped the farm, but would get caught trying to return to take his wife and daughter, Mary Frances, away with him. This resulted in the family being sold to a plantation in Louisiana, from which Bibb also escaped. Eventually, Malinda and Mary Frances were sold to a Mississippi plantation; their fate has been lost to history.

So the plantation is significant because it also is part of Bibb’s story.

“We look at places people escaped from. ... We look at their journeys, because a part of those stories are in different communities,” Jackson said. That means some of the sites added to the program can be in places that don’t otherwise seem connected to the UGRR.

For example, Bibb’s journey involved many attempts to escape and he was sold to people in several states, including Texas. His final escape led him to Michigan and finally to Canada.

“When we think about UGRR, we think about it being ‘somewhere else,’” Jackson said. “But it could actually be in your back yard, with the escape component. The stories are everywhere.”

Nancy Stearns Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County History Center, said the center and volunteers have been working on the Gatewood site since 2007, coordinating public and student-oriented programs several times a year with Jeannine Kreinbrink, president and senior archaeologist with K&V Cultural Resources Management in Union, Ky.

Bibb “wasn’t really well-known in today’s world, but he was really well-known in the 19th century,” Theiss said. Our objective then became to rise up Henry Bibb as a very important person – as a man who struggled, as an example of someone who appreciates democracy. His whole life story was one of sacrifice.”

So far, the center has hosted 36 public digs involving more than 360 volunteers who have helped to find artifacts on the site, and has hosted nine week-long field institutes with area high school students. Those have included 72 students each year, Theiss said.

None of it could have been possible without the blessing of Fisher, she said.

“It gives me quite an honor to have the students to come and dig for history,” said Fisher, who was presented with a certificate naming his farm to the network. “I’m so proud of being able to do this.”

Fisher said he has had the entire property designated as an agricultural district under the local Soil Conservation District office. With the designation, the farm “can never be subdivided,” he said. “This is always going to be a place you can come” to continue the work that’s being done.

Oldham County Judge-Executive David Voegele also spoke at the event; the Gatewood Plantation and most of the area now known as Trimble County actually was part of Oldham when Bibb lived there. Trimble wasn’t established until 1837.

“The younger generation today is going to have the benefit of a lot of documentation ... that we have had to dig out one page at a time, one spoonful at a time,” he said. “I commend our History center for ... bringing Henry Bibb back to life. We’re proud of our county’s connection to this site.”

Also attending was author Afua Cooper, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Bibb and his life. She has written a biography of Bibb for young adults and is working to complete a full biography of her subject, set for publication in fall 2017.

“I have been working on the life of Henry Bibb and his history for the better part of 20 years,” she said. “My focus has been on his activism, particularly in Canada.”

She said his newspaper – the first black newspaper in Canada – has been essential for recreating the communities that he and other fugitive slaves, and their supporters, carved out of southwestern Ontario.

But Bibb’s “Voice of the Fugitive” also told hundreds of stories about the people he would meet coming off the ferry from Detroit to freedom.

For example, she said, in 1852 Bibb interviewed three young men for a story in his paper. As they talked, they discovered that the men were Bibb’s brothers that had been sold away from their mother after he had escaped.

Bibb’s mother was living with him and his second wife, Mary, in Ontario, Cooper said. “He took them to see their mother, and what a day of rejoicing and jubilation that was, and he printed that story in the newspaper. ... Henry Bibb still lives.”

Cooper said she was excited to attend the ceremony and to visit the place where the man she’s been studying all these years lived.

“This is where it started,” she said of the plantation. “It’s certainly brilliant, it warms my heart.”