Museums that force one to reflect on the past and its role in the present are gifts to their visitors. While many that can be categorized as such deal with painful episodes on a national or international level, their educational purpose is also a catalyst to reflect and discuss. This is why I seek out experiences like the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on my travels. The Cincinnati institution provides a thought-provoking mix of exhibits that examine the life of slaves in the United States, their paths to freedom and current forms of slavery and human trafficking.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in 2004. With the former slave state of Kentucky across the river, Cincinnati in free Ohio was a crucial part (and desired destination) of the network that gave passage to slaves seeking liberty. The façade of the museum is impressive and faces Kentucky. I wondered if there was any symbolism in the placement of the entrance, which seems a confident and triumphant stance against the terrible institution.
Visitors arrive on the second floor and are confronted with divergent views. Straight ahead is a massive quilt, titled “Journeys I and II,” which was created by Columbus, Ohio artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. The colorful work is full of scenes depicting daily life and symbolic knitted characters.
To the left is a reconstructed slave pen. Upon entering this structure, the inhumanity of the transport of slaves is apparent. Shackles are bolted to the ground to avoid a slave escaping, while no comforts whatsoever are provided. These acts were undertaken in the United States only several generations ago, which is a shameful reminder that we are not far removed from this era.
Exhibits demonstrate the difficulties of the attempt to reach the free North. Slaves were forced to leave their families and risk beatings and worse upon capture. A cinematic recreation shows the emotion and bravery involved in the process. After wandering around this interactive portion of the museum, I came to the “All for the Cause” exhibit by Cincinnati native artist Larry Winston Collins. Forty portraits commemorate people who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Collins created the works using mixed material, including metals, wood, paint and plaster.
Upon reaching the upper level of the museum, the first piece encountered is a vintage seat. The green seat, similar to those prevalent in the mid-1950’s, was donated by a local bus line in honor of Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to give up her place to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in December of 1955.
In addition to educating about the past, the Freedom Center also exposes visitors to contemporary slavery and the continued fight for justice. A wall is tagged with the word “freedom” in various languages, including Swahili (“uhuru”). This part of the museum recounts tales of human trafficking and the unimaginable lives that people are forced to live today.
When I visited the museum, I also had the opportunity to view a photographic exhibit of South Africa during the apartheid era. The images of Nelson Mandela were very touching and showcased the leader’s warmth. Viewing these intimate photographs of one of the most important figures of the 20th century less than a year after Madiba’s death was a deeply emotional experience that undoubtedly will stay with me.
I spent the final minutes of my visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center alone on high-level deck, watching the river with the Freedom Flame next to me. This eternal flame burns regardless of the weather, a reminder that the fight for freedom is a continuous struggle and that perseverance is paramount.
Headed to Cincinnati? Be sure to peruse the Freedom Center’s excellent website before your trip.