Learning the Local Black History

Black History Month doesn’t have to be about wokeism or virtue signaling. It’s just like any other aspect of history that we celebrate at certain times of the year, yet it causes some people to roll their eyes and dismiss it as tokenism or pandering to a particular voting bloc.

That isn’t the case at all. Black History Month, which takes place in February every year, is a chance for us to revisit the past and assess the progress we’ve made, to see if we’ve met our stated goals of liberty and justice for all. The whole point of studying history at all isn’t to idolize or worship bygone days, but rather to learn lessons, heal, and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

In 2022, I’m learning a whole new perspective of Black history. My husband and I recently moved to Ashland, Kentucky. This is the first time I’ve lived in a former slave state, so a lot of this is new to me. I’m originally from Nevada, which became a state on October 31, 1864 for the explicit purposes of giving President Abraham Lincoln enough electoral votes to win re-election, and also so the Union Army could mine its silver for ammunition. I learned a little bout the Underground Railroad in school—I know what it was and I recognize names like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Mary McLeod Bethune (who was actually post-Civil War, but she was still a name I learned in school). And I did a book report on George Washington Carver in sixth grade, but that’s pretty much the limit of what I have committed to memory at age 52.

Shortly after we moved here a couple months ago, my husband bought me a book about the Underground Railroad along the Ohio River. He knows I’m into local history and I love to read. He figured I’d be interested in reading about the role this area played in the emancipation movement. Of course, he was right.

The book doesn’t talk about Ashland specifically, but it does say this general area played a critical role in the emancipation movement because of its location across the river from the free state of Ohio.

The Underground Railroad was not a real rail line with trains and railways. Instead, it was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early- to mid-19th century to help enslaved African Americans escape into free states and Canada. A lot of them were skirted away in boats along the Ohio River.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 banned the importation of slaves into the United States, but slave owners were allowed to breed them like horses or livestock. That’s where Kentucky came in.

The Industrial Revolution and invention of the cotton gin increased demand for cotton. Even though Kentucky was not a cotton state, it could provide the labor force needed for the extremely labor-intensive crop.

Across the river in free territory, Cincinnati sprung up as a major population center.

“The Ohio River was the defining place where visibility of trafficking eclipsed any notion of slavery as acceptable,” writes author Nancy Stearns Theiss. “As enslaved people began racing toward free soil, people in the North were no longer sanitized from the brutal realities of family separation, torture and death that resulted from slavery. Slavery was transparent.”

One thing that has always been missing in my history classes—at least I don’t remember these things if I was taught—is what happened to the freed slaves that made it to the North? We never hear about them. Well, this book answers that question.

“Cincinnati grew into a thriving metropolis during the 19th century. The opportunities attracted German and Irish immigrants in large numbers … By the end of the Civil War, Germans composed 30 percent of the population. Black communities had settled into the Queen City and had become an early native population, but were threatened and subjected to racist bias due to the proximity of the slave trade across the river in Covington (Kentucky). Blacks, for the most part had little prospects for upward mobility in the workforce, because the lack of educational opportunities. As Irish immigrants moved into the region, they competed with Blacks for labor-intensive and low-paying jobs, adding another layer of prejudice and competition for black workers … Black slave black laws were created in these borderland free states to discourage Black settlements and deny Blacks equal rights. These laws were passed, in part to reduce the influence of free Blacks because of the potential they had to harbor and help fugitive slaves … This mix of workers created a strange context of racial bias on many different levels. As people were defining the American Dream.”

This book also takes readers on a tour of the historical sites along the Ohio River that were significant to the Underground Railroad. One of the sites is located in Covington, Kentucky where there is a mural of a Margaret Garner and her family fleeing Boone County across the treacherous frozen river to reach Cincinnati.

This story was the inspiration for the Pulitzer-prize winning novel “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. And since my bucket list includes reading ever Pulitzer winner for fiction, I had to get a copy and start reading it. I’m about halfway done and I really do like it. It has this total paranormal thing going on, which I’m diggin’ so hard. There’s a lot of jump cuts and the jargon is sometimes hard to follow, but the story line is really powerful. Morrison’s book exemplifies the ideal of showing the story instead of just telling it.

The other book I’m reading this month, and I just started it so I’m not very far along, is “The 1619 Project: A new origin story” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues. It started off as a deep dive project for the New York Times Magazine back in August 2019. The book is an even deeper dive. I’ve only gotten through the preface so far, but I watched a Masterclass series on Amazon Prime Video where she was one of the speakers and talked a lot about her book.

Hannah-Jones has become a controversial figure after her claims that the arrival of the White Lion Slave ship  in Jamestown, Virginia in August 1619, one year before the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock, was a significant turning point in the establishment of the United States as we know it today. While she does not specifically mention the words “Critical Race Theory,” she does say very directly that the form of capitalism as we know it in America is rooted in white supremacy. 

Now, I will admit, obviously, I am a white girl, but I have a pretty thick skin and I don’t get bent out of shape when Black people talk about Juneteenth and Black History Month or any other celebration of their culture.

I love music and art and history and storytelling—all that stuff. I don’t have to be genetically attached to a particular culture to appreciate it.

But first and foremost, I’m an American. I love freedom and equality and little d democracy. Liberty and justice and for all! Ya know, that kind of stuff.

So I’m all about Black History Month. African American slaves built this country with their labor and paid the mortgages for its structures, yet were denied ownership of it for 400 years. Democracy was a privilege reserved for white men.

I can’t talk too much about the 1619 book too much because I haven’t read it yet, but I do want to discuss some of the things Nikole Hannah-Jones said in the Masterclass series.

The first quote of hers was, “The highest calling of patriotism is not to say that our country can do no wrong, but that it actually is critiquing our country to force it to live up to its highest ideal. It is the belief that your country can be the things that it says it can be, and that our duty is to fight to make that true.”

I agree with that statement whole heartedly. That leads me to another quote of hers that really forced the paradigm shift in me.

“We, in the United States are the most unequal of the Western democracies. We have the highest rates of poverty. We have the stingiest social safety net, we have some of the weakest labor protections for our workers. That can be traced not to those textile mills in Boston, but to the plantations of the South.”

She’s not wrong.

Throughout the Masterclass, Hannah-Jones compares the United States to other Western democracies.

As a disabled woman whose SSDI claim was denied for the third time, I totally get the point about us not being as generous as other industrialized nations. Our social safety net is more of a shredded patchwork that’s been strewn together based on political favorites and pet projects instead of deciding what is needed to have a functional society.

One thing that I didn’t hear her say and I haven’t read that part of the book yet, but I am greatly concerned about, is the executive-to-worker wage gap, the mindset that one class of people feels they are entitled to hoard the wealth while exploiting the workers who build the wealth.

The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2021: “From 1978 to 2020, CEO pay based on realized compensation grew by 1,322%, far outstripping S&P stock market growth (817%) and top 0.1% earnings growth (which was 341% between 1978 and 2019, the latest data available). In contrast, compensation of the typical worker grew by just 18.0% from 1978 to 2020.”

I don’t know what kind of regulations or public policy could be implemented to bring that back into alignment, but that problem needs to be addressed before we can have an honest discussion about labor, inflation, budgets, and safety nets.

We also see this hoarding mentality with hedge fund managers and private equity firms that are gaming the system. They too need to be right-sized but I don’t know how to do it.

Getting back to the comments about “Western democracies” and industrialized nations. This is where I had my paradigm shift: We as citizens of these industrialized nations have succumbed to the same rabid, passive consumerism that helped Americans turn a blind eye to the horrors of chattel slavery.

And I talk about that in my book, Fermata Cellars. Even though it’s paranormal fiction, I still get a little political when the main character, Manuel Chavez, talks about his old life in Chiapas, Mexico. Chavez is the 26-year-old marketing director for Fermata Cellars winery. He had grown up in the vineyards as the son of a migrant farm worker. On his first day of the new job, he reminisces:

“Ah, Mexico, my homeland—I hate it! Sure, the climate is perfect for agriculture, but the good ol’ boys that run things have fucked up the water supply, doused the land with chemicals and treated the workers like slaves. Americans—and their ever-precious passive consumerism—don’t care who sacrificed what, so long as they can buy everything for under a buck without having to face the poor souls who suffered inhumane conditions in order to bring a bunch of swill to the land of the free.”

Look around us. How many of our goods are made in China or other third-world countries? Are those people unworthy of the little d democracy and freedom that Americans and other residents of Western democracies receive? It’s okay for us to buy goods that were made by people in sweat shops, so long as we get universal health care, extended maternity leave and the other privileges of industrialized nations.

If American-style capitalism is rooted in the history of chattel slavery, why on Earth would we pass on that legacy to third-world nations?  We turn a blind eye to the fact the people who live in those countries are working in unsanitary conditions without environmental protections or labor laws, and oftentimes they’re not even getting paid.

I’m not for globalism. I’m all for each individual person doing what is best for them, and each country doing what is best for its citizens. And I don’t identify as a socialist or liberal or progressive anymore than I identify as a conservative or libertarian. But when it comes to being sanctimonious about liberty and justice for all, we need to stop being part of the dam that’s blocking other countries from having the same rights and privileges we have here.

We have to do better. And we can still be capitalist in our approach.

First, do what you can to buy local. Instead of buying produce from Mexico, Chile, or Brazil, choose orange juice from Florida and avocados from California. Or better yet, shop at your local farmers market.

Second, if you don’t need something, don’t buy it. I have told people not to buy me gifts that I have to pack, unpack, dust, clean, toss, recycle, or donate. I hate knowing that cheap crap that was made in a sweat shop somewhere is going to spend eternity in a landfill.

I finished reading Nomadland last month, and it really changed my opinion of the Amazon fulfillment center. I haven’t seen the Hulu movie, but the book did not glamorize poverty in the United States. But rather, it made me think twice before I order crap I don’t really need and have it overnighted to my door.

Finally, I want to leave you with an announcement about an event coming up this Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. I plan on attending. It’s called “Say It Loud: A Black History Month Celebration” at The Mill in downtown Ashland. Festivities will include live music and Black history trivia. The event promises to be “a fun, educational celebration for everyone.” Ten percent of all sales will go to Ashland for Change, a community-led organization geared toward educating others on societal inequality and discrimination toward minority groups.

I look forward to meeting these folks.


“A Tour on the Underground Railroad along the Ohio River” by Nancy Stearns Theiss


National Archives, Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, 1807 https://bit.ly/3LSeL3Y

Townsends YouTube channel https://bit.ly/3puHcf5

Northern Kentucky Art Tours https://www.nkyarttours.com/

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison https://amzn.to/3p7I60J

“The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones https://amzn.to/3p7r6aY

“Black History, Black Freedom, and Black Love” on Amazon Prime Video https://amzn.to/3H8jjQ8

CEO to worker pay ratio https://bit.ly/350wyW3

Office of the United States Trade Representative https://bit.ly/35ig4IA

Say it Loud event https://bit.ly/3haGChI

About Rivervine

YouTube https://bit.ly/3xGHYqm

Amazon https://amzn.to/3uXKVSf

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GwenAlyceClayton

Music: “Rivervine Overture” By David Goeglein https://bit.ly/3haeTxD

Published by Gwen Clayton

Gwen Clayton is a freelance writer living in Ashland, Kentucky. She is the former editor of the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly, and has written for numerous other publications since 1986. Her first book, the paranormal thriller "Fermata Cellars," was published in 2016, and her Bible-inspired short story, "Purr: A story of love, lions and a Hebrew named Daniel," was released in 2019. She recently finished writing, "Zinfandel’s Grimoire," which is the sequel to 'Fermata;' that book is in the editing and design phase of publication. Her current works in progress include the third book in the Rivervine Trilogy, tentatively titled, "Comatis Unveiled," and the nonfiction, "Dragon's Poker Table: A rocker chick's breast cancer journey." Her books are independently published under the imprint, Rivervine LLC. In addition to writing books, Clayton contracts as a copywriter for local, small businesses.

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