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Front Line of Freedom

Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley

Keith P. Griffler
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Front Line of Freedom
    Book Description:

    The Underground Railroad, an often misunderstood antebellum institution, has been viewed as a simple combination of mainly white "conductors" and black "passengers." Keith P. Griffler takes a new, battlefield-level view of the war against American slavery as he reevaluates one of its front lines: the Ohio River, the longest commercial dividing line between slavery and freedom. In shifting the focus from the much discussed white-led "stations" to the primarily black-led frontline struggle along the Ohio, Griffler reveals for the first time the crucial importance of the freedom movement in the river's port cities and towns. Front Line of Freedom fully examines America's first successful interracial freedom movement, which proved to be as much a struggle to transform the states north of the Ohio as those to its south. In a climate of racial proscription, mob violence, and white hostility, the efforts of Ohio Valley African Americans to establish and maintain communities became inextricably linked to the steady stream of fugitives crossing the region. As Griffler traces the efforts of African Americans to free themselves, Griffler provides a window into the process by which this clandestine network took shape and grew into a powerful force in antebellum America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4986-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Series Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Rita Kohn

    The Ohio River Valley Series, conceived and published by the University Press of Kentucky, is an ongoing series of books that examine and illuminate the Ohio River and its tributaries, the lands drained by these streams, and the peoples who made this fertile and desirable area their place of residence, of refuge, of commencement and industry, of cultural development, and, ultimately, of engagement with American democracy. In doing this, the series builds upon an earlier project,Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience(Robert L. Reid, ed.), which was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  7. 1 River of Slavery, River of Freedom
    (pp. 1-11)

    The waters of the Ohio River reflected an accurate though troubling image of the young American nation for nearly a century after its founding. The last barrier across which thousands of fugitives from enslavement made good their escape, the river embodied the ideal proclaimed by the Revolutionary generation on the world stage: the young Republic as a beacon of liberty. Yet the Ohio also served as a means of transport for the internal trade in enslaved children, women, and men—tens of thousands of African Americans were shipped downriver to the Cotton Belt markets for human chattel. At once a...

  8. 2 No Promised Land
    (pp. 12-29)

    June of 1818 witnessed an unprecedented scene along the Ohio River. The sight of a large group of immigrants making its way toward the young state of Ohio, with its cheap and abundant land, was not usual, but these newcomers were different. They had endured cruel usage during a lifetime of enslavement. They had known the sting of the lash, the pain of being separated from loved ones sold at auction in the Upper South’s thriving traffic in human beings. For wanting to do nothing more than exercise their legal right to personal liberty, they had been “hunted down and...

  9. 3 Home Over Jordan
    (pp. 30-57)

    Frances Jane Scroggins, Major James Wilkerson, John Parker, and John Mercer Langston were among America’s forgotten children of the revolution. Their fathers and grandfathers, Virginia aristocrats, had been officers in the American forces in the Revolutionary War. Those such as Scroggins, Wilkerson, Parker, and Langston would have to join with a group of Americans fighting a decades-long war for their freedom. In another place and time, they might have lived lives of ease and luxury. Instead, they were relegated to the ranks of America’s dispossessed. In the United States of the day, it did not matter that their fathers and...

  10. 4 Band of Angels
    (pp. 58-80)

    Virginia natives John Fairfield and John Parker had much in common. Frontline operatives in the struggle against slavery, both willingly crossed into the South in pursuing their objectives. Both were said to have liberated hundreds of enslaved African Americans. Parker’s efforts on behalf of the enslaved meant that his life was in constant danger. He later wrote, “I never thought of going uptown without a pistol in my pocket, a knife in my belt, and a blackjack handy. Day or night I dared not walk on the sidewalks, for fear that someone might leap out of a narrow alley at...

  11. 5 Egypt’s Border
    (pp. 81-104)

    No operative in the thriving underground along the Ohio River of the 1840s took greater risks than John Mason. On what was to be his last mission, he had no fewer than four fugitives. Although he had safely delivered larger parties before, Mason encountered a problem that taxed even his considerable abilities as a “slave stealer.” Daylight was rapidly approaching, and it would no longer be safe to venture onto the Ohio River. He and his party would have to find a hiding place and await nightfall. Long before the sun set, however, the five African Americans were discovered. There...

  12. 6 Prelude to Exodus
    (pp. 105-130)

    The Polly family had realized its dream of freedom. In 1849 Douglass Polly, manumitted from Kentucky slavery by the terms of his owner’s will, purchased his brother, Peyton, Peyton’s wife, Violet, and their seven children, themselves enslaved in Kentucky. The reunited family settled on the north bank of the Ohio River, near the town of Ironton.¹

    The relatives of the deceased slaveholder, also named Polly, were not content to suffer the loss of persons they had come to regard as their human property. One of the slaveholder’s Kentucky relatives, named Justice, paid another man three hundred dollars to hunt them...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 131-150)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 151-163)
  15. Index
    (pp. 164-169)