I am always overwhelmed by the role that Ohio played in the history of slavery.
The Ohio River was the cusp of freedom; cross it, and you had a chance of escape. Get caught, and you were sure to be punished for trying. The Underground Railroad ran all along the southern border of Ohio, stretching northward into Canada. But alongside those safe havens were bounty hunters. Crossing the Ohio River was just the start.
The Margaret Garner story referenced in this Kentucky monument was made into an opera. When the Cincinnati Opera performed it, I was anxious to go, but didn’t get to. I’m hoping they’ll perform it again so I can.
Other slave stories, factual and fictional have been inspired by events near Cincinnati and Dayton. Harriet Beecher Stowe based her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on a number of interviews with people who escaped slavery during the time when she was living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Just across the Ohio River is Kentucky, a slave state. Imagine what it must have been like to look across the river and know that. Fittingly, right on the shore of the Ohio River now sits the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Another fantastic novel that dealt with the slavery issue was set in Xenia, Ohio, about 50 miles north of Cincinnati. In the Author Interview at the end of her debut novel Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez explains what inspired her to write the book:
I was reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois and, during a section about his tenure at Wilberforce University, came across a stunning line about the existence of a summer resort in Ohio that was popular among slaveholders and their enslaved mistresses. I could not get this idea out of my head. I had so many questions…
Unable to find answers or any records of the slave women who “vacationed” at the resort, Perkins-Valdez instead turned to fiction. The result was absolutely captivating. I could not put this novel down. Like the author, I was fascinated by the idea of a resort where slaveholders took their concubines. It seemed such a contradictory concept; I often had trouble wrapping my mind around it as I read.
The novel was absolutely riveting, not just because the storyline and writing were top notch, but because it was based on that scrap of fact that Perkins-Valdez could not let go. There was an actual resort near Xenia, Ohio. Slaveowners and their mistresses did travel there. So little was documented about it that we can’t ever know what it was like for those slaves (“wenches”) that were brought there. But I am satisfied with the picture Perkins-Valdez paints. As unimaginable as it seemed, her portrayal of it was real enough for me.
If you have other recommendations of books about slavery, please share them here.