Examining the Legacy of Slavery in the Ohio Valley
by Delores M. Walters, Ph.D.
Racist acts of intolerance are neither isolated nor innocent, according to a recent Cincinnati Enquirer editorial (8 Apr 2005). The latest incidents involved a Florence, Kentucky middle school student who threatened two female classmates—one an African American and the other biracial—while another student in a Logan County, Ohio school expressed hatred of Native Americans in his read-aloud essay. This tendency toward bigotry was also revealed last year when three youths burned a cross on a Black family’s lawn in Burlington, Kentucky and a few years ago when another home was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti in Anderson Township, Ohio.
Racial prejudice against Blacks, in particular, appears to be based on assumptions that persons of African descent are newcomers, and therefore intruders, in the Ohio-Kentucky borderlands region. Yet, while many Northern Kentucky communities are now almost exclusively White, the Black population reached almost 25 % in the decades prior to the Civil War. Despite its status as a “free” state during this same period, Ohio did not welcome Blacks. Their numbers rarely exceeded 5% of Ohio’s population until well after the antebellum period.1
As both an NKU professor of Anthropology and a community research specialist at the National Underground Freedom Center, one of my goals is to help students and other local residents understand their history with regard to the racial, gender and sexual dynamics of slavery. Two novel opportunities for families, teachers and visitors to Greater Cincinnati have served to enhance this objective and generate needed discussion about issues of inclusion and acceptance of difference, in our community as well as in contemporary society at large. The first of these is the 2004 opening of the National Underground Freedom Center (the Freedom Center), a premier facility on Cincinnati’s Ohio riverfront, which uses the historic Underground Railroad movement as a lens through which to explore a range of issues surrounding struggles for freedom in the past, in the present, and for the future. Most recently, the July 2005 premiere of
Margaret Garner, at Cincinnati’s Music Hall, celebrated the Freedom Center’s one-year anniversary. In preparation for
Margaret Garner, the Cincinnati Opera collaborated with the Freedom Center and local scholars, including myself and several of my colleagues at NKU’s Institute for Freedom Studies, on the highly successful Opera Raps and Introducing
Margaret Garner series. Whereas Opera Raps sessions served to explore the historic and cultural contexts of
Margaret Garner’s story, Introducing Margaret Garner was performed by a talented group of artists, who previewed scenes of the opera in schools, universities and churches throughout Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.2
Margaret Garner tells the story of the historic figure for which it is named, an enslaved woman who escaped from a Boone County, Kentucky farm and subsequently killed her two-year old daughter rather than see her re-enslaved when slave-catchers tracked her family to their Cincinnati hideout. The opera provided an opportunity to reflect upon Garner’s plight and to restore this significant family story to the local public memory. Indeed,
Margaret Garner has provoked ongoing dialogue about issues that still divide us both locally and nationally—issues of race, class, gender, culture, and sexual subjugation. Additionally, opera goers were encouraged to continue their conversations with facilitators at the Freedom Center’s “Dialogue Zone.”
Ultimately, the combination of educational opportunities provided by the
Margaret Garner opera and the Freedom Center will continue to help dispel the ignorance that underlies persistent acts of racial intolerance in our region. Ideally, educating community members about African Americans’ long-standing presence in the Ohio-Kentucky borderlands region as well as their, and other racial groups’, contributions to the building of our local culture and economy, will prevent reoccurrences of such intolerable acts of intolerance.
1 Prior to the riots against Blacks and the anticipation of strict enforcement of the Black codes in the late 1820s and 1830s, Cincinnati’s African American population rose to almost 10 percent, according to Cayton, Andrew R. L.
Ohio: the History of a People, 2002 Columbus: The Ohio State University. Also see Taylor, Nikki M.
Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868, 2005 Athens: Ohio University Press, p. 20-21.
2 Further details about the new, Margaret Garner
can be found at http://www.margaretgarner.org/
Delores M. Walters, Ph.D. is a faculty member of the Sociology,
Anthropology & Philosophy
Department and a faculty associate of the
Institute for Freedom Studies at Northern Kentucky University.