Man learns of link to Underground Railroad

Man learns of link to Underground Railroad
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Kory Darnall, of Davenport, left, and Rick Breeding unveil a new tombstone for their common relative, James Farris, an abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor. Breeding is of Winterset, near where the cemetery is located.

Kory Darnall of Davenport is always up to something.

Through the years I’ve written about his leading role in the 20-year restoration of Davenport’s once-forgotten Schuetzen Park, the founding of the German American Heritage Center in what was a rundown hotel and the one-by-one replacement of some 44 tombstones for military war dead in Davenport City Cemetery.

He also is the only person I know who has ever traveled to Namibia. (Nine times, in fact.) He may be the only person I know who can even identify where Namibia is.

Most recently I received a news release from the Madison County (Iowa) Historic Preservation Commission about another Darnall project: he and a second cousin helped pay for and dedicate a new gravestone for a common ancestor, James Farris, who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Farris is buried in a pioneer cemetery in Madison County — south of Des Moines and famous for its covered bridges — but his 1870 headstone had deteriorated so much over the years that it was almost unidentifiable.

Although Darnall has uncovered the history of numerous Davenport residents and led the way on restorations at the city’s oldest cemetery, he knew nothing of this relative — a great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side — until about two years ago.

That’s when a Madison County woman who was seeking a grant to help restore the pioneer cemetery named after Farris researched his genealogy, down to living descendants.

And needing as much financial help as she could muster, she asked Darnall if he and his relatives could pay for the replication of Farris’ headstone. They did, and that’s how the dedication came about.

According to documentation in the Madison County Historical Museum Library, James Farris came to Iowa from Missouri with his family in 1851 when he was in his mid-50s. He was a farmer, hunter, trapper and abolitionist.

From the 1850s to 1862, he and his wife. Elizabeth. aided Freedom Seekers fleeing from Missouri, which was a slave state. Freedom Seekers were on secret paths to Des Moines, Chicago or Canada, and the Farris family provided guidance, safety, food and housing in their double log cabin.

Farris’ role in the Underground Railroad is “pertinent to what’s going on today,” Darnall said. “People are risking their lives” for justice.

Since learning of his relative, Darnall has researched fugitive slave laws, learning that a person caught and convicted of aiding and abetting a slave faced stiff penalties, including confiscation of their property and imprisonment.

Darnall is proud to know he had an ancestor willing to risk that.

AND ABOUT NAMIBIA: Namibia is a country in far south Africa that borders the Atlantic Ocean on the west. From the late 1880s to 1915, it was a German colony. Because much of the land area is desert, it is one of the least populated countries in the world.

Darnall became interested in Namibia because of his interest in German language and culture, but his visits there aren’t just about sight-seeing.

A social worker by profession, he tries to do some helpful project when he is there.

He has organized a beach cleanup, planted trees in an area where the desert is further encroaching on arable land, a process call desertification, and restored graves of war dead.

He also has taken over veterinary supplies to help stock a clinic of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust and laptops for a rural school that “has nothing.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented Darnall from visiting this year, he has been contributing to a nonprofit that adopts orphanages and schools for needy kids, providing meals, books, advocacy and mentorship.

“Even when you’re not there, there are ways to help,” he said.

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