Keith Griffler, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Transnational Studies. He joined the then Department of African and African American Studies in 2005, coming from the University of Cincinnati where he was Associate Professor of African American Studies. His research and teaching span a broad range of topics in the history and political economy of Africa and its diaspora, together with the historical investigation of the nexus of race, gender and class in the making of the modern world. He is author of Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley, a history of the African American front line communities in the port cities and towns along the Ohio which gave the impetus for the formation and growth of the region’s underground freedom movement.
Professor Griffler has just completed a book tentatively titled Freedom on the Line: The Lost Black Abolitionist Legacy of the Twentieth Century, which offers the first history of the response of the Black freedom movement to the problem of modern slavery. In the century after Emancipation, the long shadow of slavery left African Americans well short of freedom. Sharecropping and debt peonage entrapped a majority of Black people in the South, and they faced the constant threat of prison labor, such as the infamous chain gangs. Even as racial slavery persisted in the US, it re-crossed the Atlantic in the form of the forced labor systems of European colonialism that menaced the liberty of an even larger number of Africans. Leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois insisted that the continuation of racial slavery anywhere put Black freedom on the line everywhere. He even predicted the consequences that ignited the recent Black Lives Matter nationwide protests—the rise of a prison industrial complex and the consequent erosion of African Americans’ faith in the criminal justice system. The powerful combination of antislavery and antiracism that animated the interracial alliance behind nineteenth century abolitionism transformed America, producing not only the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that outlawed slavery but the Fourteenth and Fifteenth that bestowed citizenship and voting rights on African Americans. The twentieth century, however, would feature a self-proclaimed heir to that august tradition that eschewed interracialism and severed its connection to the struggle against the still pervasive racism found across the Atlantic world. The results were devastating for African Americans’ hopes for freedom. The mainstream antislavery movement became complicit in the enslavement of Black and Brown people across the world through its sponsorship of racist international antislavery law that gave the “new slavery” explicit legal sanction. In response, Black freedom movement activists did more than call out this breathtaking betrayal of abolitionist principles. They developed an expansive vision of human freedom that deserves explicit recognition now more than ever as we finally begin to enact it fully. This book tells the story of this vital Black abolitionist heritage in its full historical context of the bondage to which Black people were subjected and the international institutions and antislavery movement that upheld them. It thereby fills in some of the less visible historical background to the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent rise of mass incarceration. It is all the more remarkable that this history has escaped our historical memory in that at its center were some of the very same core issues, including the carceral state, that lurk in the background of the events now unfolding before our eyes.
Professor Griffler is also nearing completion of another book manuscript, The Invisible Trail to Freedom: A Freedom Seeker’s View of the Underground Railroad explores the hidden world of the freedom seeker from slavery through the story of Shields Green. Still in his early 20s, he beat the long odds in making a nearly impossible escape from slavery to ride the Western New York branch of the Underground Railroad to Frederick Douglass’s home in Rochester. After first being sent over to Canada, Green returned to that city to become the proprietor of a successful business. Feeling powerful and with every prospect of financial security for the first time in his life, he adopted the symbolic name Shield Emperor. And yet only a short time later, Green unaccountably abandoned his new home, his new life and his newfound freedom and prosperity to follow John Brown back to the South on what he knew to be a suicide mission to foment a rebellion of the enslaved. The reasons behind Green’s fateful decision lie buried in his tragic past that shaped an unshakeable determination to fight and die for the people, and especially the son, he had left behind. Green’s Underground Railroad story forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about the freedom seeker’s experience that our understandably celebratory historical memory too often leaves out. Every freedom seeker had a traumatic past in slavery, a heartbreaking family story of love and loss, and every one of them had to find a way to live with it in the hostile environment that passed for “freedom.” Those who ran away did not sever their ties to the people they left behind in bondage in the South, an achingly painful reminder that freedom wasn’t really free for them or those they loved. As members of the community of the enslaved in exile, they could not simply afford to wait on the world’s largest slaveholding republic to end their suffering. Instead, their fight to the death with slavery that commenced with their escape was only the first part of an ongoing war on the institution that they waged as only they could—profoundly impacting the course of American history. Green’s mysterious life and consequential death in the Harpers Ferry insurrection led by John Brown provide a window into the hidden world of refugees from slavery. From their vantage point, the trail to freedom takes unexpected twists and turns, starting with the very decision to take flight. Given their need to organize their own journey, freedom seekers were not the “passengers” of the familiar railroad metaphor but the engineers who drove the liberty line. Neither did their Underground Railroad passages erase their pasts in slavery or assure that their stories automatically had happy endings upon their safe arrival to free territory. Viewed from his standpoint and that of his fellow freedom seekers, it is not just the Underground Railroad that looks different, but slavery, freedom and even American history.
Prof. Griffler co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed a historical documentary, “Wade in the Water,” which looks at the journeys of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio Valley. The documentary won a number of national awards, including first place in the National Broadcasting Society’s National Professional Production category in 2002. He serves on the Advisory Board of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His work has been funded by a Charles Phelps Taft Fellowship and a major grant from the Ohio Historical Society.