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Studying the Underground Railroad

Cincinnati author Griffler
explores area's history

His book includes references to Madison

By Michelle Hicks
Contributing Writer

(June 2005) – Studying African-American history is a way of life for Keith Griffler. The University of Cincinnati professor is a faculty member of the Department of African and African-American Studies. Griffler’s 2004 book, “Front Line of Freedom,” is a chronological history of the Underground Railroad movement, and the Rivers Institute, the recently formed Hanover College research organization, invited Griffler to take part in the May 21 Underground Railroad “river crossing.”

Keith Griffler

Photo provided

Author Keith Griffler teaches African American studies at University of Cincinnati.

Griffler was unable to attend the event. But he is familiar with the area because he has included Madison in his research for the book.
Griffler, who was born in New York and raised in Virginia Beach, Va., came to his field of study “out of interest.” After completing his undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and his graduate studies at Ohio State University, Griffler joined the University of Cincinnati faculty, where he has taught for the past seven years.
“Front Line of Freedom” focuses on the “original, formative role of the African-American in the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley Region,” said Griffler, 38. Through his book, he hopes to dispel some of the myths and legends that surround the Underground Railroad. Griffler’s intent is to “re-orient scholarly studies of the Underground Railroad and refocus the way we as Americans look at the Underground Railroad.”
Griffler indicated that a common misconception regarding the Underground Railroad is that it was “everywhere” and that “everyone” was taking part in the movement. Griffler makes clear that this wasn’t possible.
The economy north and south of the Ohio River was “tied to slavery,” and a lot of slavery sympathy existed. “It’s important to remind people that Abraham Lincoln was an opponent of the Underground Railroad,” noted Griffler. The Underground Railroad was a clandestine and illegal movement, and in reality, only a small group of people participated.
Interestingly, Griffler said that the railroad metaphor is inaccurate and of little help in understanding the true nature of the Underground Railroad movement. As he illuminated, the railroad metaphor implies that the acts performed through the “conductors” of the Underground Railroad were done with “train-like” precision. This wasn’t the case; most African-Americans coming from the South had never heard of the “Underground Railroad,” and they were terrified of white people. In fact, ample evidence exists that many slaves went north without contacting anyone for assistance. This is why the role of the African-American was so important in the success of the Underground Railroad movement.
African-Americans were typically the first point of contact for fugitive slaves heading north. Griffler clarified that areas such as Madison and Cincinnati were especially dangerous because they were border areas that were closely observed. In river communities, there were “outposts or community sentinels” who would ensure that African-American “strangers” were contacted and assisted. These community sentinels were members of the African-American settlements in the area, and they knew when they saw a new face.
Jae Breitweiser, local historian and president of the Board of Eleutherian College in Lancaster, Ind., emphasized the vital role of African-Americans in the success of the Underground Railroad movement in this area. Three large African-American settlements were established in Jefferson County, and the Underground Railroad movement began early. In fact,
Underground Railroad activities were taking place long before the movement was dubbed “Underground Railroad” in the 1840s. Breitweiser indicated that the three African-American settlements, Georgetown, South Hanover and Graysville, were heavily populated with African-Americans who hailed from Virginia following Nat Turner’s famous “slave rebellion.”
Breitweiser also elaborated on the collaboration between the African-American and white settlers to assist fugitive slaves.

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