History in the ‘Nati

An Outing of Conscience

This post is a sequel to Art in the ‘Nati, and covers my continuing adventures in Cincinnati over Easter weekend.

Exterior: Travertine DetailSomehow, through over five years of regular visits to the “Queen City” I failed to get to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It opened in August ’04, on a very prominent site, clearly visible as you speed down I71, through downtown Cincy. Each time I made that drive I would bookmark the Center for a visit “next time”. Finally, “next time” arrived…and the
Center became the second stop on my
touristic adventure.

It is billed as part of a new group of “museums of conscience,” along with the Museum of Tolerance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. The exterior features rough travertine stone from Tivoli, Italy on the east and west faces of the building, and copper panels on the north and south (from Wikipedia). The rough hewn nature of the travertine feels very akin to the stories held inside.

Annie at the CenterSadly, because of the debt the museum has accrued, and low attendance, a dark cloud seems to hang over it. None of my Cincinnati family or friends had really said anything unsolicited about it, and certainly didn’t tout it as must-see. Despite that, I was determined to experience it. I headed down with my folks, sis and her children, Annie and Brian. I was interested to also see this history through their younger eyes as well.

It is positioned in the perfect spot, historically and conceptually…on the banks of the Ohio River, on the Ohio side, within plain view of Kentucky (Covington). As you enter the Center, you have the view that former slaves had as they set foot into their newfound freedom. There is a sinuous “river” crafted out of flat slate rocks, which you walk cross while entering the Center, symbolically crossing into freedom yourself. The “river” rocks are a blueish-grey tone, so the color aids in the illusion. The same undulation seen in this “river” is echoed in the walls of the building itself, also illustrating the fields and rivers that were common on the road to freedom.

The audio tour introduces you quickly to the unforgettable story of William and Ellen Craft, a slave couple who escaped to freedom due to his cunning and her daring. Thanks to her light skin, she was able to pass as a male slave owner, also feigning injury by putting her right hand in a sling to avoid having to write or sign anything (since she didn’t have those skills). Their creative hoax paid off. I hadn’t remembered being taught about this in grade school. A “tranny/drag” ex-slave! I should have known cross-dressing was one road to freedom. Here are further details on their story, and other cross-dressing successes.

img_3848The giant The RagGonNon quilt by Aminah Robinson is the first featured piece in the collection. It tells the story of the slave trade, from Africa to America. The button and shell eyes on some of the sewn slave faces were haunting…like something out of Coraline.

Slave Pen: A Horrific Reminder

The principal artifact of the museum is a slave pen (built in 1830), which was discovered on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky. A larger tobacco barn had been built around it in the early 20th century, hiding it from plain view and giving it the appearance of any other barn. Thankfully, it protected the pen from the elements for a century. Not, surprisingly, there are apparently hundreds of log (slave) pens like this hidden in tobacco barns all over the country. See this fascinating step-by-step of how it was dismantled and reassembled.

The cramped one-room pen tells the story of a generation of slaves who were kept inside, on Captain John W. Anderson’s farm, waiting to be taken to the auction block.

Slave Pen, from Mason County, OH

Approaching the pen, and walking through its belly is a haunting journey. With the help of the audio tour, you not only imagine the horrors that occurred here, but hear stories from both a slaves’ perspective, as well as the slave traders’. It certainly called to mind my visit to l’île de N’gor (“Slave Island”) in Senegal.

“The pen was described by an ex-slave as “worse than a dog hole.” Men were chained to the straw-covered floor of the second story, while the women, charged with taking care of the men and cooking, were free to move about the house. Human waste and garbage would fall to the kitchen from cracks in the upper floor, and the close quarters led to outbreaks of cholera…the men were tethered two-by-two to the central chain by shorter shackles that allowed them only to sit or lie down. The smothering sense of confinement, barely breathable air and lack of privacy drove some mad.” (By Marilyn Bauer, The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Road to Freedom

Fortunately, after experiencing the pen, we experienced some levity and hope in the form of a movie, previewed in the beautiful theatre. It is an artistic vision portraying the road from slavery to freedom, rendered by three different artists. The first was an abstract, mostly pastel rendering of themes of oppression and darkness, moving into soaring freedom and colorful light. The second was a more literal story-telling of a journey to freedom. This artist actually partially erased her drawings to create each animated frame, as well as a sense of almost blurred movement. She used primarily deep browns and blacks, to create a stark palette, but with some warmth and hope. The faces she depicted were rich in character and stories, but exhausted, and seemingly hopeless.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted.”
— Harriet Tubman

Levi Coffin's WagonIn ESCAPE!, an exhibit which needs no real explanation, we learned about the brave abolitionists, and methods to freedom. An Oskar Schindler-like man named Levi Coffin created a wagon with a false bottom, which allowed him to hide multiple slaves under supplies.

Karen Heyl SculptureWe enjoyed multiple marble wall sculptures by Karen Heyl, the same artist that at the beginning of her career created The Wall of Creation, a hundred-plus foot wide sculpture in Good Shepherd Parish, where my folks and grandpa belong. I love work like this that allows light to play along its surfaces, and create the rather subtle definition.

I was very pleasantly surprised that the museum also pays tribute to all efforts to “abolish human enslavement and secure freedom for all people.” So, there are inspiring references to and portraits of Harvey Milk, Gandhi and other heroes of justice and champions of civil rights movements on the top floor of the museum.

Critics of the Center (and there are many) feel that a more affordable, existing building should have been re-fashioned to serve as its location. Also, the public money the Center has received has come under fire, as there are MANY other sites that educate about the Underground Railroad that survive without that aid, and yet are now threatened by the existence of this Center. I hope the qualms will subside over time, and that the Center will not only survive, but come to thrive, as this is a story that NEEDS to be told, and has potential for more impact in this civic setting!

The bonds are broken!

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