At some point in the mid-19th century, a slave or former slave whose name is lost to history crossed the Ohio River (from Kentucky to Ripley, Ohio) into freedom, carrying tomato seeds with him. While in Ripley, this anonymous African-American man shared some of his tomato seeds with a white woman called “Aunt Lou.” She passed the seeds on to her great-nephew, Francis Parker, who, decades later, shared them with a Mr. Ellis in nearby Sardinia, Ohio. From Mr. Ellis, the seeds made their way to two master gardeners and, in 2010, the variety was listed in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. This tomato was known for a long time simply as “Aunt Lou”; after conversations with Mr. Willis about the timeline of events and exchanges related to this tomato established that the man who originally carried the seeds to Ripley, Ohio, may very well have been travelling on the Underground Railroad (Ripley is the home of Rankin House, an important stop on the route north to freedom), it was renamed “Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad tomato.”
This heirloom variety produces dark pink-red tomatoes that weigh 120-340 grams. The fruits have a slightly flattened top, are quite juicy, and contain a lot of seeds. They are pleasantly tangy and make a great slicing tomato. This variety takes 75-85 days to mature and the robust plants easily reach a height of over 1.5 meters. Because of its sparse foliage, this variety is easily damaged by late blight, so it is particularly important to use mulch that prevents backsplash. An indeterminate variety, Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad tomato will continue producing fruit until the first frosts.
The fact that a slave trying to escape to freedom and limited to carrying just a few articles and possessions would choose to carry his tomato seeds speaks poignant volumes about the very tangible importance that seeds and food have for people, even in desperate times. Fundamentally, Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad tomato is a simple but powerful story as old as agriculture itself: It is a story of seed sharing, the humble act through which food plants proliferate and change across space and time, and become embedded in the communities that protect them.
Aunt Lou’s Underground Railroad tomato is still grown in southwestern Ohio and is available in some seed catalogues and seed sharing circles, but it remains underappreciated and is difficult to find for sale—even in the Ohio Valley, this variety is rarely present in farmers’ markets. This heirloom tomato must be protected and more widely grown and enjoyed, not just for its high culinary quality, but because it speaks to the critical importance of African-American communities in the history of American agriculture and foodways.