For people today, slavery is a problem with an obvious solution. In the 19th century, slavery was a hotbutton issue that divided the nation. Proponents of slavery adamantly defended the practice while opponents of slavery vehemently denounced it and sought to abolish it. Those who opposed slavery had a common goal, but did not agree on the best strategy to eliminate slavery. Even within individual abolitionist groups, consensus was difficult to obtain. Caroline R. Miller documents the complexity of the antislavery issue in Grape Vine Dispatch: The Voice of Antislavery Messages. The subtitle is especially appropriate because although opponents of slavery spoke with one voice, there were many different messages. Miller does not shy away from this complexity; she presents all of the various aspects in a logical and orderly way. She weaves the multi-textured threads into a very readable account. (In addition, the index allows those who are interested in a specific place or individual to easily access that information. Slaves who were known only by their first names are indexed as well.) The primary focus of the book is the Borderlands, primarily Bracken and Mason Counties in Kentucky, but the Ohio counties along the Ohio River are well represented. Miller sets the stage by providing background information on the history, agenda, and principal people of the antislavery groups, such as the American Anti-slavery Society, the American Colonization Society, and the American Missionary Association. The antislavery debate encompassed diverse opinions: immediate versus gradual emancipation, relocation from slave states to free states or Canada or colonization to Africa (specifically Liberia), education and civil liberties. Miller further details the contributions of the agents of the Underground Railroad. These accounts reveal the depth of their abolitionist convictions and the lengths to which abolitionists would go to assist slaves in obtaining freedom. Many abolitionists risked their personal safety as well as their family’s security; they faced imprisonment and financial loss. However, not all who professed to be abolitionists were trustworthy. John A. Murrell and his associates fomented slave rebellion for their own benefit; Murrell “hoped, when the carnage and rioting by slaves began, he and his clansmen could rob local banks and pillage the countryside” (p. 44). Murrell would kidnap slaves and sell them back to other slave owners. Slave owners used these stories to discourage their slaves from escaping. Miller discusses the hardships that slaves experienced and the difficulties associated with the flight to freedom. Even free persons of color were harassed and required to present their Certificate of Freedom. The impact of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act is also explored. Slaves who escaped became fugitives and some were captured and returned to slavery. Miller personalizes each chapter with a wealth of research culled from archives, court records, newspaper articles, and slave narratives. Miller published this book “so that these times, and these people are not forgotten”. She has done an admirable job.
Caroline Miller will speak about her book at Ohio University Southern Campus (Ironton, Ohio) on Tuesday April 24, 2012 from 4:00 -5:30 pm. This presentation is part of the Ohio River Festival of Books and is free to the public.