How the Kappa Sigma House was a part of Ohio State’s Underground Railroad.
For those of you who go to class on the regular it’s impossible to not walk by a building named after some old person. And for most of us that’s all those people are; they’re just some really old person who is probably dead by now, but did something cool for the university so they got their name slapped onto a building. We hardly give the history of our prestigious school a second thought. However, this old campus holds stories on its own. Past generations of Buckeyes had connections to historical moments in United States culture that can be found beneath the oddly named roads.
If you have ever decided to take a stroll along the Olentangy trail during the winter months and have noticed that in some areas there was a trail of bare grass from where the snow had melted prematurely and wondered why, here’s a theory. Ohio State was a part of the underground railroad and had multiple checkpoints throughout campus. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The reason the snow melts so quickly is because there are underground tunnels that the escaping slaves used to during their journey. The first checkpoint was the Olentangy River. From there the slaves would travel through the swamp that we now know as Mirror Lake. Then they would either split off and travel one of two ways and end up at the final checkpoint, the Neil House which is now the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. This is where it gets good.
All of OSU campus and a lot of the off-campus area used to be a huge farm owned by a man named Henry Neil. He lived on Vance farm which was made up nearly all of main campus. In 1856, William built his son Robert the “house on the hill” that would be known as Indianola (sound familiar?). Robert Neil was a pretty rad dude because in 1818 the slaves that he owned he freed, and he was the owner of the Neil Mansion when it was used for the Underground Railroad. In other words, Robert Neil’s efforts in the early slave-fueled America were vital for many African-Americans looking to escape through Ohio—more specifically, right here in Columbus. Cue 1860 when Abraham Lincoln is elected president and the Civil War starts in 1861. Many members of the Neil family fought in the Civil War including Robert’s brother, Henry.
We now know how Indianola made its way to campus, but have you ever wondered what the hell an Iuka is? As history goes, Henry fought in the Battle of Iuka in Mississippi and was one of the survivors (side note: it was a bloody battle, only 3 horses survived the battle). So when Henry came home he apparently wanted to remember that battle forever and so Iuka Street was birthed.
Fast forward because we all know how the Civil War ended; the Northern forces won, and slavery was abolished. Anywho, in 1873 Ohio State admitted its first 24 students who actually met on Neil farm. Robert Neil died in 1883, and sometime between then and 1905, Thomas Francis acquired the Neil Mansion. In 1908 he was rescued by two members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity from a robbery and beating. See, frat boys aren’t all that bad. In 1909, Francis leased the house to Kappa Sigma as a “thank ya kindly” to the fraternity for saving him, and in 1919 the fraternity bought the house for a whopping $18,000 (less than the current yearly cost of tuition and housing, but also roughly $262,653.29 if it were today using an inflation calculator).
This little story about the Kappa Sigma brothers saving Francis also serves as a very on-brand moment for the fraternity. Their history goes back to the 1400’s in Bologna, Italy where the governor of the city was corrupt and took advantage of the students at the University of Bologna by sending his men to assault and rob them. Thus was born the Kappa Sigma fraternity, a group of five students coming together in a mutual agreement of protection against the governor.
“Living in this house there is a big responsibility to make sure we take care of the house, and that the members of the fraternity remain virtuous men in the community.” — Mitch Poch, president of Kappa Sigma.
Skip ahead to now and I was able to get a tour of the Kappa Sigma house and got to see the tunnel that was part of transporting the escaping slaves. It’s a literal hole in the wall in the laundry room that holds so much history that it’s a little daunting standing in front of it. But it’s symbolic of so much more. Countless people risked their lives for a greater cause—for freedom at all cost. And it all happened right in this very basement where a frat brother was doing a load of his laundry when I came to visit.
The president of Kappa Sigma, Mitch Poch, said that it’s a privilege to be a part of such a deep history in OSU and the Underground Railroad.
“Living in this house there is a big responsibility to make sure we take care of the house, and that the members of the fraternity remain virtuous men in the community,” Poch explained.
So even fraternities, which many of us think are just a bunch of party boys, have a deep history hidden within their houses that all of us can appreciate and learn from.
At the beginning of this long-winded history lesson there was mention that every classroom building is named after someone who did some pretty cool things for the university. There are two that I want to highlight that are related to this topic. The first is Sullivant Hall named after Joseph Sullivant. He was a member of the first board of trustees and was considered a friend of people of color. The second is Townshend Hall which gets its namesake from Norton Strange Townshend who served twice as a delegate to the World’s Anti-slavery Convention and also helped to repeal Ohio’s “Black Laws.” Next time that you are walking to class, take notice of the names of the buildings and realize that all those people are apart of something pretty badass and revolutionary. And if you are ever looking for more to experience, you can head over to Greenlawn Cemetery where Robert Neil, his former slaves-turned-free-men, and a captain of the Underground Railroad, James Poindexter are all buried.
Featured illustration by Ryan Caskey.