A coffee kiosk and ice machine in a parking lot in Portsmouth, Ohio
Ashton has captured photos of Portsmouth, Ohio, for the past decade. Ken D. Ashton/Daylight Books

Ken Ashton’s photos from Portsmouth, Ohio, compiled after years of cycling there from Columbus, document a community left behind by time.

When Ken Ashton first participated in the Tour of the Scioto River Valley, he joined about 8,000 cyclists in the two-day Ohio trek from Columbus to Portsmouth and back. That was in 1991; Ashton’s been back almost 30 times. Some others have him beat by decades. The Tour, which started as a father-and-son ride in 1962, is one of the oldest rides in America. There are cyclists in their 70s who still make the journey.

The 212-mile trip is an annual event; this year’s Tour is this weekend, May 20-21. Since the ‘90s, the number of cyclists who make the trip has dipped. (Perhaps a consequence of the Tour’s reputation for always falling on rainy days.) But Ashton says the most striking changes have taken place in Portsmouth, the destination. Crowds of residents used to greet the mob of cyclists as they crossed a bridge over the Scioto River into town, he says. Now, no one shows.

Ashton, an artist who lives in Washington, D.C., has been photographing Portsmouth for the last decade. He just released a collection of those photos in a book, Portsmouth: Collected Saturdays. His austere photos serve as a document in the vein of Alec Soth’s Niagara or William Christenberry’s Southern Gothic photos of kudzu-covered barns in Alabama—a record of decline but also a testament to the dignity of a community.

For Collected Saturdays, Ashton asked me to write an essay about Portsmouth. The river crossing detail sticks with me, and I started with Portsmouth’s critical location, on the Ohio River border between Ohio and Kentucky. With his permission, my essay follows.

* * *

For all the obvious reasons, Portsmouth never advertised its status as one of the central crossings of the Underground Railroad. Only after the Civil War, near the turn of the century, did residents yield their secrets about the fugitive slave run up the Chillicothe Pike to a “colored” township in Pike County and then, eventually, after other lines and passages, to free states or to Canada. Portsmouth was an important stop along the Ohio River, the “Jordan” that so many slaves crossed in their escape, from what was first Virginia and later Kentucky into Ohio.

The signs of the Underground Railroad were necessarily secret. The stories were not. The historian Wilbur Siebert performed an invaluable good by conducting some 2,500 interviews of former “employés” of the Underground Railroad in Ohio, research that he published in the late 1890s. Today there is a historical marker noting the place in Portsmouth where fugitive slaves crossed the Ohio—a spot where, sometimes, slave-catchers would be waiting for them. That marker would not exist today had Siebert not spoken with J.J. Minor, a black Portsmouth barber and conductor of the Underground Railroad who helped runaways fleeing by riverboat from the Kentucky side to safety in South Webster in Scioto County.

America needs more interviews, more markers of its modern history. Ken Ashton’s Collected Saturdays is proof.

(Ken D. Ashton/Daylight Books)

Since the late 19th century, more authoritative accounts of the Underground Railroad have emerged. Historians still appreciate Siebert for the scope of his interviews (and the fact that they exist at all), but they tend to question his overly romantic interpretation of history. Siebert himself seemed to anticipate the critique of his work; yes, any account told from memory is bound to be unreliable, he argued, but he was asking people to recall events that were unforgettable. “The risks these persons ran, the few and scattered friends they had, the concentration of their interests into small compass because of the disdain of the communities where they lived, have secured to us a source of knowledge of which the reliability can scarcely be questioned,” Siebert wrote in “Light on the Underground Railroad,” published in The American Historical Review in 1896.

Were it not for Siebert’s diligence and curiosity, voices like Minor’s might be lost to time. Markers noting the importance of Portsmouth to the Underground Railroad might not stand watch today. Siebert’s contributions to the historical record are clear, if narrow. But his observations about Portsmouth are enlightening in a secondary way. Portsmouth has never not been colored by the “disdain of the community.” Present-day Portsmouth attests to this disdain.

Ashton’s Collected Saturdays, a record of Portsmouth, also documents this disdain. In 1933, Congress created the Home Owners Loan Corporation, an agency created under the New Deal to refinance mortgages across the nation to prevent foreclosure in the wake of the Great Depression. Two years later, at the direction of federal authorities, the Corporation began drafting “residential security maps” in 239 cities across the country. Neighborhoods in these cities were outlined and graded by desirability. Neighborhoods considered safe for lending purpose were outlined in blue and graded with an “A.”

(Ken D. Ashton/Daylight Books)

These notorious documents are known as redlining maps, so named for the neighborhoods that were outlined in red—“D” neighborhoods considered to be credit risks. The legal segregation of the United States, planned as part of an economic recovery program, extended long after the final fall of Jim Crow laws in 1965. While the legal path to segregation was blocked, the financial mechanism is still evident today.

Working with brokers and Realtors, assessors from the Home Owners Loan Corporation divided Portsmouth into 21 different areas. Neighborhoods graded “D” were “characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or an infiltration of it.” Seven neighborhoods in Portsmouth were given “D” grades. These include neighborhoods with black populations as well as those that were entirely destroyed by a great flood of the Ohio River in 1937. Neighborhoods with black households, black families, were considered just as undesirable and credit-risky as neighborhoods felled and leveled by a historic natural disaster.

(Ken D. Ashton/Daylight Books)

The concentration of poverty along racial lines—and the decades of missed opportunities that flowed from legal segregation— undermined Portsmouth. Segregation undermined the United States.

In 1975, almost 30 percent of Americans were employed in manufacturing. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 9 percent—a steep decline. Yet the transformation of the economy began long before the 1970s, and it was attended by tremendous national gains in productivity. Rust Belt cities like Portsmouth might have survived the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the services industry. But Portsmouth and other great American cities could not survive both the collapse of manufacturing and the utter exposure of vulnerable neighborhoods long deprived of even modest economic opportunities. In cities hit hardest by plummeting manufacturing opportunities, neighborhoods that were already struggling were rendered essentially uninhabitable—as if they’d been struck by another flood.

Ashton might have taken these photos in Baltimore. Or Cleveland, or Detroit, or Gary, Indiana, or even parts of Washington, D.C., where he lives. Recognizing what blight means in Portsmouth and other cities means understanding the continuing consequences of decisions made more than 80 years ago. It means mapping blight by tracing those areas once segregated de jure and comparing them with neighborhoods segregated de facto.

The signs of the failure of Reconstruction are just as obvious today as the signs of the Underground Railroad were once hidden. Discovering their meaning, however, is a process. It begins with observation and documentation. It means looking, seeing, taking note, keeping watch.

Reprinted with permission from Portsmouth: Collected Saturdays ($45, Daylight Books).

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