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Published: Monday, 4/26/2004

Lathrop fate in bishop's hands

At this late date, the only thing that can keep Sylvania's Lathrop House in its historically correct location is intervention by Bishop Leonard P. Blair. It's an action that Bishop Blair, as head of the Toledo Catholic Diocese, should take in the interest of humanitarian ideals as well as preservation of a valuable piece of national heritage.

Moving the 169-year-old home even the short distance planned by its owner, St. Joseph Catholic Church, will essentially destroy its historical gravitas as a remnant of the fabled Underground Railroad of pre-Civil War days. What is vital to the house's history, and what cannot be moved intact, is its cellar, used by abolitionists to harbor southern slaves making their way to freedom in Canada.

It is understandable why Bishop Blair, a relative newcomer to the Toledo diocese, might be reluctant to take a stand that would anger some of his constituents in the suburban parish of 3,500 families. St. Joseph's is a thriving parish with an excellent school. But there are times when a greater good must be embraced.

Preservation of historic structures is crucial to remembering where the United States has been as a nation and where it is going. As we have learned through the civil rights struggle of the past half-century, a struggle supported admirably by the Catholic church, a critical segment of our heritage is the African-American experience.

The frightened men and women who fled the oppression of slavery, traveling at night and hiding by day in a succession of safe houses along the route north, could not have known that the clapboard dwelling that concealed them in Sylvania, Ohio, would one day be the center of controversy in a small - and yes, mostly white - community.

It is precisely that rich historical framework that makes preservation of the Lathrop House at its current location so compelling.

Marie Vogt, last in a long line of known residents of the home, dating to Lucian Lathrop in 1847, erred in greatly overestimating the value of the house when she attempted to sell it. Historic value is rarely reflected in real estate prices, and the high initial asking price discouraged more reasonable offers.

Local black groups were late in mobilizing to protest the move of the Lathrop House, but a belated reaction does not mean no reaction.

Bishop Blair ought to seek the counsel of the Rev. Martin Donnelly, who has worked on the church's behalf in the inner city for years and certainly understands the monumental importance of the Lathrop House to black history.

If Nathan Hale had hidden from the British there, would there be any discussion at all of destroying the integrity of a structure so important to America's past?

To move the Lathrop House is to destroy it - and to disrespect its special place in African-American history.



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