Syracuse University Magazine

A Journey of Hope and Restoration

By Joan Southgate as told to Martha Southgate

Joan Southgate '52 lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where she is a social worker, organizer, and activist. In 2002, at age 73, she walked more than 500 miles from southern Ohio to southeastern Canada to honor the anonymous heroes of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) who, at great personal risk, helped fugitive slaves to freedom in the northern United States and in Canada. Since then, the longtime activist has helped found Restore Cleveland Hope, a UGRR education center that will be located in the last remaining house in Cleveland with any connection to the UGRR. We wanted to know how Southgate decided to make this journey, as well as a second one in May. She told her story to her daughter, novelist Martha Southgate. 

One of the questions I am asked most often is, "How did you get the idea to do something like this—didn't it seem crazy to people?" I guess it might have, but it never seemed crazy to me. My walking started out as a simple effort to get healthier. I was past 70 and it was time for me to be more conscientious about diet and exercise. I began walking almost every day with my friend and neighbor Clara Moore. We usually just walked and talked and had a great time. One day Clara couldn't join me and I went out on my own. I was walking along with the inner monologue so many of us have: "Why is it so hard to get into the habit of exercise? Why is this still so hard?" Then suddenly I was nearly stopped in my tracks by the realization that enslaved African Americans had walked hundreds and hundreds of miles with no signposts, no guides, no maps. Only faith and each other—and whoever was willing to help them, black or white—to rely on. I started to think over and over, "What was it like and how can I praise them?" By the time I got home, I had decided to walk part of the UGRR route in Ohio. 

It wasn't that simple of course—and yet, somehow, it was. None of my four children or any of my friends discouraged me or told me I was crazy. In fact, it wasn't long before we were having meetings and figuring out my training plan and truly organizing the logistics of the walk. And then on March 31, 2002, I took off. 

There is no way to describe the countless miracles and blessings I received on this journey—the friends I made, the extraordinary experiences I enjoyed, the degree to which I was able to share my message about the UGRR. Suffice it to say, it was an experience I will never forget and will treasure always. One of my favorite memories is of an older truck driver, a white man, who read about the walk in the morning paper. He pulled ahead of us and stopped and waited for us on the road. He was especially excited that the message of the walk would be shared with kids of all races, including his own granddaughter. He wanted to pray with us, so we took a moment to pray and rejoice at that moment in the journey-that's something I will always remember. 

And the journey led me, ultimately, to the miracle of my current project, Restore Cleveland Hope, an organization supported by a grassroots effort of a diverse group of people. The project began not long after my walk, allowing me to put my skills as a community organizer to work again, which was wonderful. Our goals were twofold: First: We were determined to save the Cozad-Bates house in the University Circle section of Cleveland. We did this in 2006 when University Hospital, which owned the house, donated it to University Circle Inc., which is working with us on our dream. This remarkable old home—the only pre-Civil War house still standing in Cleveland—had been left to sink into disrepair, but it has a rich history, having been the family home of a prominent abolitionist family, the Cozads. In fact, "Hope" was the code name for the Cleveland area for those on the UGRR. Once we saved the house, our second goal was to raise money to fund the UGRR education and resource center that will be located there. As part of this next step, we began an exciting new partnership with a local Montessori school that will share the house with Restore Cleveland Hope. We feel that having the middle schoolers onsite will offer many new ways to connect these young people to history and to develop intergenerational programming-and we're still developing the ways in which we hope to work together. The big job ahead of us now is raising the $2 million to $3 million that will be required. In May, to kick off this fund-raising phase of the project, I took another walk. This time, with my friend Sally Tatnall, I walked 250 miles from St. Catherine's, Ontario, back to Cleveland, staying at the homes of supporters along the way. It was wonderful all over again—and we raised $30,000. That's the beginning—I'm eager to see the journey completed! 

To learn more about the project, visit

Photos by Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)