Underground Railroad, Slavery and The Erasure of Memory

The Jewish cemetery in Sniadowo hardly exists anymore.  The Nazis desecrated the headstones in this tiny Polish town and then used them as paving materials for roads.  Then, the Soviets dug up what remained of the cemetery and used it as a gravel pit.

Today, the area is a pleasant meadow with flowers and wild grass, but  no marker.  I might have walked right by, had not my guide pointed out the area in 2012, when I visited Sniadowo, the place where my maternal grandmother was born.

I might have walked past a similarly beautiful strip of land with trees on either side, had not the same guide pointed out two long parallel indentations in the grass.  “That’s where the tracks to Treblinka were,” he said, “ but the Nazis removed them when they finished the job.”

What's left of Sniadow's Jewish cemetery

What’s left of Sniadow’s Jewish cemetery

There is something haunting to me about beautiful places that show no hint of their grizzly history.

Melissa by Marker For Slave Auction BlockToday, John S. Mattox, the founder and curator of the Underground Railroad Foundation in the Ohio River Valley took me and my partner to a nondescript intersection with a gruesome past in Wheeler, West Virginia. This is where enslaved people were auctioned off, he told us.

This place of pain could be so easily be forgotten, were it not for John Mattox himself, who spent 15 years working the system and finally succeeded in having a marker placed there.  So now there is at least an acknowledgement of this place of pain, where so many families of African descent were broken apart.

This isn’t the first time he has placed a marker in a spot of historical significance.  Mattox showed us markers along highways, buildings, and on private homes, too.

While he has held many jobs, his life work has been to assemble The Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing, Ohio.  Flushing is a town of fewer than 900 people. But Mattox manages to get hundreds of visitors a year to the the three-story museum housing his personal collection of artifacts, art work, realia, relics and publications.

Slave Auction Block - MattoxMattox is a “self-taught” historian with encyclopedic knowledge of American and local history. But, I think his real gift is in talking to people and connecting with them in a human-to-human manner.  It was a joy to meet him and I especially appreciated his insistence that I call him whenever I have a question. Even better, he was very happy to receive calls from a certain group of 100+ middle school students I know pretty well.

What John Mattox Taught Me Today

I learned a lot today from Dr. Mattox.  If I boil it down to one thing, it is the importance of taking action for things we care about.  He is certainly passionate about researching and preserving national and local history. But it doesn’t stop there. His example reminded me that we shouldn’t wait for others to identify and solve a problem. It’s up to us.  In our communities and in our schools.

Tomorrow I will begin my second week of summer vacation. But school is still on my mind.  It is so hard to try to make change at school.  We are all wrapped in yards and yards of sticky red tape.  We already have so much to do – and we so often take on so much more. But we do it because we care about young people, about education, and about making a difference.

A mentor of mine, Jeff Duncan Andrade, once told me, “Good teachers make great classrooms.  Great teachers make good schools.”  That’s the kind of teacher I want to be?  How about you?


John Mattox isn’t alone in his work to keep history from sliding into, well… into history.  On the other side of the state, in Ripley, Ohio, there are folks who are working to collaboratively to document their local history, too.  Stay tuned (or better yet, subscribe) to find out more about them in my next blog post.


Links to all Underground Railroad blog posts:

  1. Kicking Off My Fund For Teachers Fellowship
  2. Cincinnati’s Freedom Center
  3. Underground Railroad, Slavery and the Erasure of Memory in Flushing, Ohio (This Post)
  4. Unexpected Twist on an Ohio River cruise
  5. Why Ripley Ohio Moves Me
  6. A History Hater Teaches History


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