WINONA, Minn. —Carol Jefferson has spent the past four years trying to prove a point that still eludes her grasp: that runaway slaves once passed through Winona with the help of local abolitionists, making the city part of the Underground Railroad.
“This has the potential to change the way we view early Winona,” she said this week. “I think that’s pretty neat.”
Jefferson, 69, taught ecology at Winona State University for three decades, transitioning to Underground Railroad research when she was laid up with a broken ankle in 2014.
Now, back on her feet, she investigates points of interests in Winona and across the Midwest, snooping around secret basements and retracing the paths that runaway slaves followed to freedom more than 150 years ago.
She’s reluctant to go anywhere without a backpack full of literature on the subject, in case a certain passage happens to flit into her mind.
And she spends untold hours leaning over dusty books with faded cursive in the basement of Winona’s First Congregational Church, hoping to find, at last, the missing piece of the puzzle.
“I had to learn all about church history, had to learn about the Second English Civil War, had to learn about the liberation of slaves in Haiti and the prohibition of slavery in Great Britain,” Jefferson said. “It’s been a long journey to actually go through all of this history, but it’s been worth it. I’m getting closer.
“And when I finally do find validation, I’m going to shout it from the rooftops — no kidding.”
But for that day Jefferson is still waiting.
Her hypothesis hinges on the fact that many early Winonans were fierce in their contempt for slavery.
They ran Underground Railroad stations and worked with anti-slavery groups in the Midwest and New England, according to her research — and then collected their things and moved to Winona in the early 1850s, pulled in by the promise of land.
“They might have been land speculators,” Jefferson said. “But they were bringing their moral imperative with them.”
This group of abolitionists soon founded Winona’s First Congregational Church, and it’s around this church that Jefferson’s research revolves.
Over the past few years, she’s had too many aha moments to count:
Decoding acronyms in the church archives, revealing that First Congregational frequently donated to anti-slavery groups in the run-up to the Civil War.
Discovering that some of Winona’s earliest residents, whose race wasn’t specified in the U.S. Census, were black.
And learning that the Rev. Hiram Hamilton, the first pastor of First Congregational, wasn’t the villain that old court cases made him out to be.
“One of his sons, Charlie, was a really fast young man. He drove his wagon through town at a full clip, dressed in the latest style and ended up robbing a bank. He was an idiot,” said Jefferson, who assumed Charlie’s transgressions were a reflection of an equally corrupt father.
“I thought he was just getting away with everything because he was the pastor,” she said. “But it turns out, he was greatly involved in the early abolitionist movement, very involved with all these great people. He’s right at the get-go with all these great abolitionists that set not just the Underground Railroad in motion, but this whole Northern anti-slavery movement.”
This dive into early Winona has changed Jefferson.
Without looking for a signature, she can recognize the handwriting of long-dead settlers.
She can reconstruct old, forgotten family trees by memory alone.
And she begins many days by planning to slow down, to take a break from her research — before pulling a book from her shelf and diving right back in.
“To find out what these families are doing, it’s kind of neat in a way,” she said. “It’s kind of like, when you learn about a tree, you learn more about the species of the tree, then the genus of that species, and pretty soon, they’re like individuals.”
Studying the behavior of local pioneers isn’t much different from studying the behavior of a tree or flower, according to Jefferson — except that, with pioneers, you’re dealing with ghosts. She says she feels them whenever she visits First Congregational, sits in a pew and thinks.
To Jefferson, there is little doubt that early Winonans helped and protected runaway slaves, sending them to Duluth or Green Bay, and ultimately up to Canada. She’s learned enough about these people, she said, to know they would have helped anyone who needed it.
Nearly every other town where these settlers lived has been confirmed as a stop on the Underground Railroad — a limitless source of both hope and frustration for Jefferson.
Having exhausted most of the archives at First Congregational, she hopes to get her hands on the records of other local churches, and to read some of these settlers’ personal letters, which are kept at colleges across the country.
Somewhere, she figures, there must be conclusive evidence.
Whether or not she finds it, Jefferson would like to write all of this down. She’ll turn 70 this summer, and there’s no guarantee she’ll continue treating this like a full-time job, that she’ll be able to see it through.
People risked their lives harboring runaway slaves and seldom kept records of the escapes. Jefferson doesn’t want to put future generations in the same predicament, leaving them to connect the dots.
“If I don’t write about this, we might have to wait another 150 years for somebody to come across this,” she said. “This is our history. I don’t want someone to have to start over.”