Today Riverside celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Barnett Grier, community leader, activist, businessman, author, and physicist, who passed away a few weeks ago just a few months shy of his 100th birthday. He is known as a “difference maker” who, along with his wife Eleanor Jean Grier, were advocates and role models for diversity, inclusion, and engagement in the city they called home since 1951, when he was one of 52 employees transferred to the Naval Weapons Center in Corona by the U.S. Bureau of Standards, Missile Division.
He helped found Riverside’s Habitat for Humanity and the Riverside African-American Historical Society, he created a scholarship fund that annually awards local students much needed monies for college, and he was a champion for civil and equal rights. A passion, he and his wife (who preceded him in death) shared, and led to the naming of the mayor’s outdoor patio as the Grier Pavilion in their honor.
Twelve years ago I spent a week with Dr. Grier on the road, revisiting significant locations of the Underground Railroad. I have taken that tour fifteen times, but that trip with Dr. Grier was memorable. And it was historic, due to Dr. Grier’s unique family history. So historic that the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper sent a reporter and photographer to interview him at our stop on Rankin Hill in Ripley, Ohio. A story I’d like to share with you in his honor:
They stood upon freedom, looked back at slavery, By Tom O’Neill
RIPLEY — Joseph Grier, born into slavery in 1850 in South Carolina, never stood on a hill overlooking the Ohio River from the side of freedom.
His world was smaller. He stayed south and, at age 65, had his 11th and final child, Barnett. On Tuesday, that son, 87-year-old retired physicist Barnett Grier, stood on a hill at the Rankin House on the Underground Railroad and couldn’t overlook its meaning. “I was just completely awestruck,” said Mr. Grier, one of 45 Southern California educators on an eight-day tour of historic sites on the Underground Railroad. Like most of the safe havens for slaves seeking freedom north of the Ohio River, the Rankin House in Ripley was white-owned. “Standing on freedom, looking out at slavery,” said Dr. Grier of Riverside, Calif., who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Standards and taught college physics. “The river divided good and evil.”
Dr. Grier told the reporter:
His father, born a slave in Summerville, S.C., near Charleston, gained freedom at age 15 in 1865. But like many slaves, he was unaware the Emancipation Proclamation had been drawn up two years earlier. His grandfather, a Cherokee Indian, was lynched by a group of white men when he refused to sell his 100-acre farm. Mr. Grier is now the family’s last survivor. His older sister, Violet, died six months ago at age 103. Mr. Grier, raised in Charlotte, N.C., said he’s half African-American, one-quarter Cherokee Indian and one-quarter German Jew.
His father’s last name actually was spelled Greer. The family changed it to Grier, which was considered a “white” spelling then. His stories wander through rich detail, but never stray far from a question he’s been asking for most of his 87 years. “You tell me,” he said, leaning forward, “what the hell does color have to do with anything?”
I join my friends in Riverside today in celebrating his life while mourning our loss.
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