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

Article excerpt

Frontier Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. By Keith P. Griffler (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Pp. Xvi, 169. Illus., notes, bib., index. Cloth, $35.00).

Keith P. Griffler moves away from the traditional model of the Underground Railroad as being a metaphorical system of "conductors," "routes," and "stations"; and instead imagines it as an "underground resistance movement" created to accommodate the steady flow of escapees from Kentucky and Virginia. Moreover, he asserts that the crucial component of this clandestine activity (indeed, the very reason for its success) can be found in the numerous free black communities, largely comprised of fugitives and former slaves, that emerged in the Midwest to support this mass influx of escapees.

African Americans thus take center stage as the "frontier operatives" in this highly informative and engaging book about the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley. By detailing the exploits of historically obscure individuals, Griffler skillfully illustrates how African Americans initially held a "virtual monopoly" over underground antislavery activity along the northern banks of the Ohio River. Furthermore, because they acted as "frontline participants" responsible for facilitating the first stages of slave escapes, African Americans often were involved in the most dangerous aspects of the underground resistance movement. Operating against the backdrop of "black laws," race riots, and pro-slavery sentiment in the free border states, Griffler explains how African Americans risked all, including (re)enslavement themselves, to participate in antislavery agitation.

Griffler sees the Underground Railroad as proceeding along two fronts: the "more intensive frontier struggles" undertaken by African Americans and "support operations in the rear (areas farther north)" orchestrated largely by sympathetic whites. Yet, these efforts were not always coordinated. Particularly during the early years of abolitionism, Griffler describes a disjointed resistance network; one in which slave fugitives often were left to fend for themselves after receiving initial assistance from African-American "frontline operatives. …