Interview with Local Historian

Local historian Greg Roberts will be presenting a program about the Underground Railroad at the New Richmond Branch on Saturday, June 18 at 10am. Call 553-0570 to reserve a spot.

Mr. Roberts was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for me.

Laura: How did you become interested in local history and the Underground Railroad?

Mr. Roberts: I became interested in local history as a young boy growing up in Locust Corner. I would listen to my relatives and neighbors tell stories about local landmarks, the one-room school house, the old post office etc. Every so often I would hear a story of an old house that had secret hiding places or tunnels beneath it. From what I heard it seemed that every old house near the Ohio River had these tunnels. Of course, all these structures were either presumed to be or emphatically declared to be part of the Underground Railroad. The fact that I never actually saw any of these tunnels only made the notion more mysterious and peaked my curiosity even further. Later I paid enough attention in English class to learn what a metaphor was. Since then I have tried to learn as much as possible about the real story of enslaved people seeking freedom in the days before the Civil War.

Laura: Are there books that you consider essential for anyone interested in local history or the Underground Railroad?

Mr. Roberts: Yes, there are several. To keep the list shorter, I will list just a few on the Underground Railroad. Gary Knepp’s Freedom’s Struggle is a must read for anyone interested in Clermont County’s role in the Underground Railroad.

Not much has been documented about the efforts of free African Americans on the Underground Railroad. His Promised Land, The Autobiography of John P. Parker , is a fascinating account of a former slave and Underground Railroad conductor in nearby Ripley, Ohio told in his own words. There were undoubtedly many other free blacks actively involved on the road that we may never know the details; which makes this book very important.

I would recommend Keith P. Griffler’s Front Line of Freedom, African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley which offers a fresh perspective on the workings of the Underground Railroad.

I consider Beyond the River by Ann Hagedorn essential as well as Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich.

Laura: Do you have a favorite figure or event related to local history?

Mr. Roberts: I have two favorite figures. Both of whom I think are very much under-appreciated. The first is Ulysses S. Grant. We tend to forget that the man most responsible for ending slavery in this country was Ulysses S. Grant– born right here in Point Pleasant, Clermont County Ohio. Historians are finally beginning to acknowledge the true greatness of Grant, but they have over a hundred years’ worth of character assassination to undo.

I just read U.S. Grant American Hero, American Myth by Joan Waugh. Ms. Waugh tells of the unbelievable popularity and outpouring of affection towards Grant upon his death in 1885. 1.5 million people lined the streets of New York City to honor the man and observe a funeral procession that was seven miles long! She quotes an African American eulogist at a memorial service in Brownsville, Tennessee, who said, “Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Grant made emancipation fact.”

My other favorite figure is Aileen Whitt. She, more than anyone I can think of, is responsible for illuminating an incredible amount of local history to the benefit of everyone living in Clermont County and generations to come.

Laura: What do you consider the local hidden gem that Clermont County residents should know about but don’t?

Mr. Roberts: Great question! Of course the reference shelf at any Clermont County Public library is a great place to start for anyone interested in local history. As far as a single hidden gem in the County that residents should know about, I would point out Samarian Cemetery in Ohio Township just outside the New Richmond village limits on St. Rt. 132. There is the final resting place for 19 African American Civil War veterans. These brave men fought in just about every major conflict towards the end of the war–from Vicksburg to Fredricksburg and beyond.

Others buried there were responsible for establishing the Union Association for the Advancement of the Colored Men of New Richmond. Founded in 1857, according the original minutes book currently held at the Ohio Historical Society, “The object of this association shall be to aid and abet every object calculated to improve our condition, socially and politically, to foster in our youth a love of intelligence and business habits and further the interests of whatever tends to improve the happiness, honor and glory of our race.” This group predated the NAACP by more than 50 years. It later organized branches in Felicity and Ripley. Who called my attention to this hidden gem? It was none other than Mrs. Whitt!

Laura: Thank you for fantastic information about local history!

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