Underground Railroad Museum Preserves History

FLUSHING – In traditional West African culture, the griot is a respected member of the community who serves as an oral historian. He is a walking collection of poems, stories, songs and/or dances who not only passes down his culture’s history but also passes on the current news. They often serve as community leaders and lend their advice to those who ask for it.

When visitors enter the Underground Railroad Museum at 121 High St. in Flushing, they immediately meet the Ohio Valley’s own griot, John S. Mattox. Rather than check in with a receptionist at an information desk, Mattox asks his visitors to sit down and exchange stories with him.

Growing up in North Carolina and New Jersey, Mattox said he did not have many educational opportunities in his youth.He served in the Air Force from 1959-65 and attended Tillitson College in Austin, Texas, majoring in sociology and psychology.

It was after he married his late wife Rosalind that he began learning about places called “Wheeling” and the “Ohio Valley.” After working as an insurance salesman in the area for 18 years, Mattox became more active in the community. Mattox has served as a member of a number of community organizations, including the Special Wish Foundation, the American Red Cross and the Union Local Schools Board of Education.

Together, he and Rosalind opened the Underground Railroad Museum in 1993 – a vision brought to life by the couple and a number of contributors.

“This became a passion,” said Mattox. “We give people an opportunity to learn and appreciate American history.”

“This is not just a museum of African-American history, but American history,” he stressed. “In the past, many cultures were not treated properly, but we’re beginning to come together now.”

Each visitor to the museum is given Mattox’s story, but they are also asked to give their own. In this exchanging of stories, Mattox said, he is able to learn as well as educate every time someone comes to visit. The museum has had visitors from all over the world, from the U.S. to Europe and Turkey.

The museum currently occupies the old U.S. Bank building in Flushing and features three different galleries. The main floor includes the Civil War Collection and artifacts from the Underground Railroad, such as iron shackles and yokes. Several lantern-bearing statues are also displayed. Mattox said they once served as markers for stops along the Underground Railroad network through which escaped slaves sought freedom.

While Mattox has displayed a plethora of Civil War artifacts from the Union, he also makes a point of displaying plenty of Confederate artifacts as well.

“People have a distinct love of their Southern culture,” said Mattox, noting he respects that.

The basement features a “Throw Nothing Away” nostalgic artifact room, Mattox’s camera collection numbering in the hundreds, a replica of a slave cabin and a diorama display of conditions aboard a slave ship. Feet away from the diorama, there is a storytelling space where Mattox said he “becomes the griot” and performs his duty as oral historian in the dim light of the slave ship display.

The upper floor features the museum library as well as a presentation room for group visits and educational programs. The walls of the presentation room are covered with informational media and artifacts, which Mattox always lets his visitors look at and reflect upon before giving his presentations and tours.

Speaking about the museum’s future, Mattox said, “It’s beyond my hopes and dreams, and I do hope that the community sees that it will continue.”

He indicated that he is discussing collaboration with Ohio University. According to Mattox, the Underground Railroad Foundation is a nonprofit agency supported by donations from individuals and corporations. All donations are tax deductible.

Tours of the museum are offered by appointment only. To set up an appointment or make a donation, Mattox can be reached at the museum at 740-968-2080. Further information can also be found at www.ugrrf.org.