Another excellent regional history was added to the growing list of books that are increasing our Underground Railroad knowledge.
Freedom's Struggle by Gary Knepp tells the story of the Underground Railroad in Clermont County, Ohio, east of Cincinnati with 21 miles of Ohio riverfront facing Kentucky. As Knepp explains, the dynamics of being on the borderline between slavery and freedom were made even more combustible because the county was settled by former southerners who hated slavery.
Not only does Knepp conjure vivid pictures of the people and events, but he does it in clear and well organized prose giving the reader a deeper understanding of the Underground Railroad and what precipitated it.
Knepp sets the stage by introducing the issues and movements that propelled the development of the Underground Railroad. After tracing the origin of New World slavery, he demonstrates the effect of the evangelism on the antislavery movement, tracing its influence on John Rankin, who lived in neighboring Brown County. Knepp gives an excellent account of the story of Rankin's influential Letters to Slavery, quoting at length from some. He reviews the history of the American Colonization Society revealing its racist motive, followed by discussions of the American Antislavery Society and the Liberty Party, showing how many early leaders in antislavery had been converts from the Colonization movement. He concludes this introduction to the Underground Railroad with a discussion of the Fugitive Slave Laws and three important related regional cases: two involving fugitive slaves, Eliza Jane Johnson and Margaret Garner, and the third involving Brown County conductor John Mahan.
Knepp illuminates the towns of New Richmond, Moscow, Felicity, Bethel and Williamsburg, all active in the Underground Railroad. He notes that, despite significant numbers of free blacks, there was little extant history of black participation because fugitive slaves passed through quickly and left little evidence, most fugitive slaves were illiterate, blacks left few written records, the illegal nature of Underground Railroad made record keeping unlikely, and blacks generally kept their history alive with oral tradition passed down through their families.
The county was touched by some of the most important individuals in the antislavery movement: John Rankin had many ties there; James Birney started his abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist, there; Senator Thomas Morris, the first abolitionist U.S. Senator came from the county; and noted Wesleyan-Methodist preacher and Underground Railroad conductor Luther Lee was a pastor there.
Among the colorful and dedicated Underground Railroad operatives was Charles' boss Huber, who would stand on a soapbox in the middle of his hometown of Williamsburg and make booming condemnations of slavery. It is believed that Huber aided as many as 500 fugitive slaves.
Author Knepp also details incredible stories about fugitive slaves like one involving Jim and his friend, Joe, from Louisville. Jim's master was very lenient which allowed Jim to get a crate and box up Joe like Henry "Box" Brown had been, and accompany Joe in the box aboard a steamboat to New Richmond, near where Jim's free parents lived. Joe remained in the box for 36 hours before reaching New Richmond, nine hours longer than Brown took, and survived. Joe was then sent by New Richmond agents to Levi Coffin in Cincinnati who put him on the Underground Railroad to Sandusky, Ohio, where he took a boat to Canada. A few months later, Jim and his wife joined Joe.
Superbly researched, the book uses a wide variety of sources, many from the nineteenth century, including the abolitionist newspaper of the Wesleyan-Methodist Church, True Wesleyan, as well as other sources of the era. Knepp also uses many primary source letters of the 1890s from the collection of Wilbur Siebert, the Ohio State University professor often regarded as the best early researcher of the Underground Railroad.
For true students of the Underground Railroad, this is a book to add to your collection. Freedom's Struggle is published by Little Miami Publishing Company.