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Book by local author Ruth Deters describes Quincy as hotbed of abolitionist activity

When Ruth Deters moved into the Rev. Dr. David Nelson's house east of Quincy, she knew little more about him than that he had been a friend to blacks.

She began to realize just what that meant the day her daughter tattled on her little brother for hiding from the babysitter in the hole in his bedroom floor.

That incident sparked what Deters calls her "interesting hobby," looking into the life of abolitionist David Nelson and the local Underground Railroad. She has published the distillation of a lifetime of research in "The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House."

Deters tells how Quincy developed as a hotbed of abolitionist activity, located as it was across a narrow bend of the Mississippi River from a slave state. Its early settlers were men determined to see that the institution of slavery didn't spread to new territories.

After Nelson was run out of Missouri by slave supporters, he settled in Quincy where he opened the Mission Institute to train young men to spread abolitionist ideas.

In addition to his early training as a physician -- Deters places him at the nation's first surgery -- he became well known throughout the young country as a preacher. He also loved music and is credited with writing a popular Civil War-era song, and compiling a collection of hymns which includes the first-known publication of "Amazing Grace."

His Mission Institute No. 1 was built near his home. The last traces of it were lost when the strip mall at 60th and Broadway was built. A second Mission Institute was built on the north side of 24th and Maine, where Madison School now stands. A third was built near the river -- the skeleton of a network that was designed to help a slave escaping from Missouri on the initial stage of a journey to Canada and freedom.

"Quincy was like the hub for the Underground Railroad that Chicago was for the regular railroad," said Judith Winkelmann, executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.

The book documents 32 Underground Railroad sites that supplemented the Mission Institute's work. It includes photographs by Bill Deters, Ruth's husband, of many of the places where a fleeing slave is thought to have hidden.

Ruth was able to verify the homes' significance through determining when the house was built, the original owner's political and religious affiliation, and stories that have survived through diaries, letters and family lore passed down through the generations.

Most of the houses, like Nelson's, had a built-in hiding place. These trace their origins to before 1850, the year the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, which made it even more dangerous to be caught harboring a runaway.

Only a few of the known Underground Railroad sites remain standing. Tunnels have caved in, hidden rooms have been plastered over, and many of the homes have been demolished for new development over the last century and a half.

"It's a story that needs to be told," Deters said. "When I started, I didn't know how active the Underground Railroad was in this area and what the people went through. ...

"We can all learn something and be inspired by the brave and selfless acts of these abolitionists."


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