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Ohio Today

Following freedom
Alumna dedicates career to Underground Railroad

By Jaime Ciavarra

When Diane Miller stepped onto the Augustus West farm in Perry Township, Ohio, she could easily imagine the events that unfolded nearly 150 years earlier.

The farm was home to an African-American man who worked with white abolitionists to ensure slaves' freedom.

As national coordinator for the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, Miller, AB '82, visits numerous such sites, but each winter she holds her breath for the survival of this one. The house, used as a station around the 1850s, is now in near ruins, although the presence of the story is still very vivid.

"It makes me so upset because the house is too far gone to be helped," she says, noting that for two weeks after she visited the site, she dreamt of falling buildings. "But the history is so rich."

Miller's interest in African-American culture and heritage, sparked in a history of American slavery tutorial at Ohio University, is now her passion.

"It's touching to stand at a site and know that it is a spot where history played out," says Miller, an Honors Tutorial College graduate who majored in history and also received a degree in anthropology with a minor in French through the College of Arts and Sciences. "The Railroad is so important because it can teach us about freedom, self determination and, most of all, working together."

In addition to creating criteria and accepting applications for sites to be added to the program, Miller travels to Underground Railroad stations and helps community members develop and preserve them. Although all of the sites represent a part of history, each is unique and has its own inspiring story, Miller says. The Network to Freedom program she coordinates is a National Park Service project mandated by Congress in 1998 to create a nationwide system of authentic sites, facilities and educational resources.

Miller travels about 30 times a year to sites in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kansas, and she also has studied stations in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and even the islands of the Caribbean. Because it's very labor intensive to research and document stories, and in part because the program works with sites it does not own, it often is difficult to find enough resources and support for the program. One of the greatest challenges of her job, she says, is proving that these sites and stories deserve special attention and preservation.

"The Underground Railroad touches on the history of slavery, something that many people don't want to remember," she says. "I think we need to start, as a country, to look at the impact of slavery and recognize the Railroad's example of cooperation."

Miller studied African-American history as part of her master's in history degree work at the University of Maryland. She worked for the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places before becoming involved in the National Underground Railroad Network Program in 1997, about a year before it was officially launched. She lives in Omaha, Neb., with her husband, Edward King.

"The Underground Railroad is an inspiring story of cooperation between races, ethnicities and gender in order to liberate," Miller says. "It's an important example for today."

For more about the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program, visit its Web site at

Jaime Ciavarra, BSJ '03, is a student writer for University Communications and Marketing.

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