- Frontline of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley
The momentum for uncovering and understanding the Underground Railroad continues to build. Keith Griffler's work adds usefully to that momentum and persuasively attempts at least in part to redirect it toward "frontline" regions like the Ohio Valley. Unpacking what happened in this region is crucial because sectional tensions, legal conflicts, and virulent disputes about abolitionism all came to the forefront when communities, courts, and legislatures were forced to deal with fugitive slaves and those who helped them escape slavery.
Courts and legislatures only form a backdrop, however. Frontline of Freedom keeps the focus on people who were directly involved. Primarily dealing with Ohio, though with some attention to Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, Griffler firmly establishes that free black communities, both in urban areas like Cincinnati and in more rural areas like Ironton, were absolutely central to the maintenance of the Underground Railroad. This is consistent with what scholars are finding in other regions, as is Griffler's argument that assisting black fugitives had become an interracial endeavor by the 1830s. But the majority of the participants at its most dangerous and crucial points, in what was perhaps the longest running resistance movement in the United States, were black.
Free black people in this region typically found life extremely difficult. Faced with frequent white hostility, which operated on individual, communal, and governmental levels, and manifested itself through violence, theft, and state laws that stripped African Americans of many fundamental rights that whites enjoyed, black migrants nevertheless managed to establish thriving communities. Griffler hints that there was a degree of forethought regarding the location of some of these communities. Free black men and women seemed to have established some communities strategically, cognizant of the role they could play in assisting loved ones and other slaves to escape to freedom. The argument perhaps [End Page 73] could have been pushed further here, though I suspect the evidence available was not sufficient to make the intentionality of black settlers explicit. But it is an intriguing implication.
There is nothing implied about the growing determination that African Americans and their white allies evinced in the pursuit of black freedom. Griffler has pulled together an impressive wealth of stories, and he tells them well. He keeps the focus on the participants, black and white, and effectively conveys the constant violence and risk of violence that the fugitives and operatives of the railroad experienced. The title of the book is not simply a metaphor. The frontline was violent—and it was violent for a long time before the Civil War. And this is perhaps the heart of the book: this was a war, a civil war, that was conducted for decades before the onset of more widespread hostilities in 1861. Ultimately, the significance of African Americans and their white allies in this region may suggest a need to see the warfare of the Civil War as part of longer process. If the Civil War was viewed through the eyes of a black man like John Parker, who was well acquainted with the long history of violence in the region, perhaps it would have been seen as simply more of the same on a much larger scale.
This perspective was perhaps lost with a shift of attention, both before and long after the war, away from the trenches of the frontline to the logistics of the network farther north, where the virulence of white responses recedes and the assistance of white Americans was better known. Indeed Griffler in essence suggests this is how the Underground Railroad became white: white Northerners "emphasized the part of the freedom struggle they knew best—their own place within it" (79). And for many, that place had been one of support in the areas away from the border, receiving runaways, giving them shelter and food, and helping direct them onward. The vital role of African Americans and of the frontline...