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Stories of Freedom Along the Ohio:
Two profs collaborate on Underground Railroad documentary

Date: Feb. 6, 2001
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photo: By Lisa Ventre
Historic photos: courtesy of Henry Burke and Owen Pleasant
Archive: Research News

John Curtis

John Curtis was 16 when he and two younger brothers decided that the chance to gain freedom was worth the risk of trying to escape from a plantation in Rockingham County, Virginia. They had lived in slavery since birth. Their 300-mile journey as fugitives would bring them to the Ohio River to cross the shallow water northeast of Marietta, Ohio.

Curtis would make a new home in the abolitionist community of Stafford in southeastern Ohio and help others like him as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. His youngest brother's bid for freedom, however, didn't have a happy ending. He died of exposure in the winter cold before reaching safety.

Most accounts of fugitive slaves, like John Curtis, and the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley have been passed along orally from one generation to the next. In fact, John Curtis' history has been preserved by his great-grandson, Henry Burke, a resident of Marietta and an expert on the history of the Underground Railroad in southeastern Ohio.

Kevin Burke and Keith GrifflerBut the oral tradition is endangered today. Television and today's age of information have nearly obliterated families' storytelling habits. Before these heroic accounts are forgotten, two UC faculty members hope to use television to preserve them. They are producing a television documentary, "Wade in the Water: Stories of Freedom, Slavery and the Underground Railroad in the Borderlands of the Ohio River Valley," which they hope will be broadcast nationally.

An April 1999 University Research Council grant helped Kevin Burke of the College-Conservatory of Music to launch the project with some initial research. About a year ago, the assistant professor of electronic media -- who is no relation to Henry Burke -- realized he needed the expertise of a historian and turned to Keith Griffler, assistant professor of African American studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Ohio River, now changed by locks and dams, didn't flow as deeply in the 19th century as it does today, so wading across during dry periods would have been possible, according to Burke. "Although the Underground Railroad was a national phenomenon, most of its activity took place along the border of the Ohio River. It's estimated that as many as 50,000 fugitives escaped the bondage of slavery in the South through the clandestine network that passed through Ohio towns and cities," he said.

Burton's CliffWith the aid of another URC grant, Burke and Griffler are now creating a promotional video and educational web site to help raise the funds needed to produce and promote the actual documentary. They continue to do research and have begun videotaping interviews with Henry Burke and the many others who work to keep the stories of the Underground Railroad alive. Among those interviewed already are Owen Pleasant, the 87-year-old grandson of Susan Gordon, one of 37 freed slaves who established the new community of Burton's Cliff (shown in photo) in Burlington, Ohio, and Wilma Fox, descendant of the now-deserted community of Poke Patch, Ohio, where a community of freed slaves established a major terminal on the Underground Railroad.

To both Burke and Griffler, the story of the slaves' quest for freedom isn't only an African American story. It's a true American story. "It's about the struggle for freedom and that is one of the quintessential elements of our American society," said Burke. "It's a compelling and engaging story."

A native of Georgia, Burke got caught up in the story of the Underground Railroad when he joined the UC faculty in 1996. He and his wife like to take car trips and one of their early stops in Ohio was Ripley, where historic structures that once provided hiding places for fleeing slaves still stand, overlooking the river. "I was very intrigued with the story of Ripley. I had been looking for a subject for a historical documentary. From there, I went up and down the river," he said.

Research also led him to Marietta, Gallipolis, Ironton and Portsmouth, Ohio, and into Ashland, Maysville, Washington and Augusta, Kentucky, and Huntington and Parkersburg, West Virginia (western Virginia before the Civil War).

The two producers plan to examine the process by which history exists in the present. Both hope to incorporate the activities of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, scheduled to open in 2004 in downtown Cincinnati, into the documentary, as well as make the finished product available for the museum's use.

Before they can complete the project, however, much more funding will be needed.

In all so far, they have received about $10,000 from the URC and about $700 from the Friends of CCM. The producers estimate that at least $150,000 will be needed to complete the project. They have assembled an advisory committee that includes Henry Burke, Mitchel D. Livingston, UC vice president for Student Affairs and Human Resources, and Stephanie Shaw, associate professor of history at Ohio State University.

Both professors feel an urgency to complete their endeavor and would like to have a finished documentary by December 2002. "Our society today places much less emphasis on the oral tradition than it once did. We want to capture this moment before it disappears," said Griffler. "We want to take advantage of this window of opportunity."

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