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Stories of our River: Nick Clooney's church project highlights life of freed slave, others

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CINCINNATI (WKRC) - The man who sat in the WKRC anchor chair in the 1970s and early 1980s talked about a project that he considers one of the most important of his life.

Nick Clooney shared his insight with his "Stories of the River."

Many have called the mighty Ohio the "River of Freedom," with a tale of two stark realities. To the north, a former slave living in Ripley, Ohio, would work in darkness to free hundreds of enslaved people. To the south, those fighting to keep Kentucky in the Union would hold off the Confederate Army from crossing the river in the Battle of Augusta. Clooney said "we became more southern after the war."

In that river town one spring day, Clooney in a long ago abandoned church, talked about his efforts to get the building restored, to preserve the stories it will help tell. The Clooney family was told the former Methodist Episcopal church was to be torn down, so they bought it several years ago. Then local historians started talking and Clooney said "some of the things I heard were shocking and interesting, and important."

The congregation began meeting in the 1830s, before the physical structure was built, thanks to a freed slave named Sarah Thomas. It's something that would have required the permission of white city fathers.

"Her story is incredible. It goes to show how influential she was in Augusta's African American community, in helping build that," said preservationist and podcaster, Deqah Hussein-Wetzel.

Documents in Bracken County show Thomas laying the financial groundwork for the church.

"Sometimes it takes finding one incredible person to uncover the whole. It's why her story is so important," Hussein-Wetzel said.

While there are no pictures of Thomas, documents show she was an entrepreneur after gaining her freedom, even lending money for a fee, at a time when many banks were failing.

"She started showing some remarkable gifts," Clooney said.

Thomas obtained a house, furnishings and horses, when few women of any color could even own property.

"One of the things we have to do as historians is to verify, distinguish between folklore verses verifiable information," said historian, pastor and professor Dr. David Childs.

To help with that, Childs enlisted some of his students at NKU. While they poured through documents, other volunteers have also been inspired.

"Conserving this church has helped us all remember what was true and what was mythical about our history in Kentucky," said Clooney.

For months, volunteers have been cleaning up the old church. While time hasn't totally erased the church, time has muted many stories its rebuilders want to tell, such as stories of a strong Thomas, a role model and a trail blazer.

"This project is important. It's American history. It's giving voice to people obscured," Childs said.

While Thomas lived out her life in a slave state, she did have a dying wish. In her will, there is proof she bought freedom for her husband, Harry.

"She had breathed free, she wanted her husband to breathe free," Clooney said.

Thomas' words were so influential, Harry would be allowed to cross the river to Ripley to live life in freedom, as the 1850 Census shows.

"How did she do that? I have no idea. I am willing to spend the rest of my life to figure it out," Clooney said.


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The drawings in the video version of this story were done by Tim Smith. They are meant to embody the spirit of Thomas, from the stories and information that exists about her. Research was done on the clothing from the time period. No actual drawings of Thomas from the time period in the early 1800s have been found.

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