Historian Nikki M. Taylor reveals stories of Margaret Garner, Cincinnati racism

Photo: Historian and Ohioan Nikki M. Taylor’s 3rd book, ‘Driven Toward Madness’

By Megan Constable

Margaret Garner’s story has been told in poems, paintings, literature (Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”), and even an opera, but few know who she was and the tragedy that befell her family.

Author Nikki M. Taylor, Ph.D., reveals Garner’s tragic story in her book, “Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio.”

Taylor, originally from Toledo, Ohio, trained as a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and received her doctorate from Duke University. She has taught at the University of Cincinnati for nearly a decade. Currently, Taylor works as the chair of and a professor in the Department of History at Howard University. She has written three books focused on race in Cincinnati.

Taylor worked on “Driven Toward Madness” for three years, a considerably shorter amount of time compared to the average seven years it took for her other two books.

“I knew the area’s history so much better than I did when I first started my career,” Taylor says. “I also knew how to interpret things, I knew where to go for stuff, I already built relationships with the archivists, and so it was a lot easier.”

The book explores the story of Margaret Garner, who was a slave in the 19th century. She ran away from her enslavement in Kentucky with her husband, his parents, her two sons, and two daughters. They made it, crossing the frozen Ohio River into Cincinnati, where Garner’s cousin lived. While waiting for her cousin to find them a ride farther north, her owner found her and brought the law with him. In a panic, Garner slit the throat of her 2-year-old daughter, attempted to slit the throats of her sons, and hit her infant daughter in the head with a shovel. The 2-year-old did not survive the attack. With this in mind, Taylor examines how slavery affected women, from a black feminist perspective.

“I wanted to reclaim her and I wanted to rescue her voice,” Taylor says. “It had been effectively erased by the archive—her voice had been muted. In order to amplify that, I had to use the theories of black feminists, which means, first of all, you put a black woman at the center of your interrogation—their perspective, their lives, their histories, what mattered to them, how they viewed the world. Two is actively understanding there’s an intersection of race, gender, and class.”

An example Taylor uses is how, in the 19th century, Kentucky did not have a law protecting black women from rape. Sometimes slavery required nonstop work from a woman, whom slave owners expected to work outside and inside, including taking care of her own and even their own children. These examples look at the roles of gender, race, and class to understand Garner’s experience as a slave in the 19th century.

The book also examines the law differences between Kentucky, a slave state, and Ohio, a free state. If an owner willingly brought a slave across the Ohio border, the law considered that slave free. However, once the slave went back to Kentucky, they lost that freedom. In Garner’s case, her lawyer attempted to have her tried for murder in Ohio, instead of as a runaway slave in Kentucky.

“Cincinnati was, hands down, the most racist city in 19th century America,” Taylor says. “That troubled me as an Ohioan, and I wanted to know why, and I wanted to know to what extent that racism presented itself and what allowed for that.”

According to Taylor, Cincinnati had the most mob attacks on African-Americans, as well as a large anti-abolitionist community. Cincinnati also did not allow African-Americans to receive education, unlike other northern cities. One issue was Cincinnati’s close proximity to Kentucky.

Taylor briefly wrote about Garner in her first book, but she was conflicted by her story.

“I didn’t talk about her much because her story was so troubling on so many different levels for me as a black female historian, as a historian of black women’s history, and as a mother,” Taylor says. “I wasn’t prepared to really build into the story.”

Whenever a mother takes the life of her child, people usually turn to mental disorders. However, Taylor does not think this is the case with Garner.

“I wanted to make sure people didn’t think she was simply a crazy woman who did something horrific,” Taylor says. “It’s easy for us to sweep it away if we think of her simply as that.”

Today, this story can shed some light on the current mistreatment of African-Americans by the law. Taylor says many black women cannot speak up because the law is not on their side, much as it was not on Garner’s side when it sent her back to Kentucky.

“One of the main things activists talk about is valuing black bodies and black voices and black perspectives, and so, this is a part of the narrative,” Taylor says.

During Garner’s trial, black women gathered and protested outside of the courthouse, which was one of the first times in American history where black women were protesting to help another black woman. Taylor relates this to a division of Black Lives Matter called Say Her Name, which gives a name to murdered black women.

“Saying her name is part of our effort to reclaim the voices, the identities, the real personhood for people who have been killed, executed, abused, oppressed, violated by the state or other forces,” Taylor says, just as she did with Garner’s.


‘Driven Toward Madness’ is available on Amazon. For more of Nikki M. Taylor’s work, please visit Ohio University Press at OhioSwallow.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Megan Constable at MeganConstable@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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