As an museum apprentice at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, one part of my job is to go through the museum every day to make sure every single aspect of each exhibition is functioning, undamaged and ready for a day of visitor interaction. I carefully walk into each exhibition as if I am visiting the museum for the first time, looking at every text panel, listening to all of the audio panels, manipulating all of the interactive displays and watching a small bit of each film. As I check items off on my list, I sometimes get quizzical looks from visitors wondering about my curious behavior. To be honest, if I wasn’t the one doing my job I would also find it strange to see someone pressing every single button and looking so closely at displays. But I try to normalize the experience for the people around me by explaining what I’m doing, and that is usually met with praise and awe that I’m lucky enough to explore our awesome exhibits every day.
Another aspect of daily museum walkthroughs is collecting the surveys from the Invisible: Slavery Today exhibition and the guest book reflections from the And Still We Rise exhibition. Every question, comment or concern gets read by me and entered into our records every day. In And Still We Rise, many people commented in hopes that the exhibit could travel to other states and now that it’s run here at the Freedom Center has ended, I am happy to say it is currently traveling all across the country on a two-year tour! In Invisible: Slavery Today, many commenters reflect on the surprising facts of modern day slavery that make them want to become involved as an abolitionist- so great news! There are now updated fact sheets at the end of the gallery and a new website, which list ways you can get involved.
Every visitor and all feedback is extremely appreciated and helpful in determining the future of our exhibitions so please continue to visit and let us know what you think!
-Brittany Vernon, IMLS Coca Cola Museum Studies Apprentice
Image: A shot of the new Freedom Center exhibition, Foto Focus: New Voices.
Now that I've been at the Freedom Center for almost a year, regaling you with exciting behind-the-scenes tales of collections and exhibits, it's time to introduce myself.
I'm Gina Armstrong, one of the IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentices at the Freedom Center. I come to the Freedom Center fresh off a masters of library and information studies (MLIS), with an archival concentration, at the University of Alabama. Your next question is probably "How did you get from Alabama to Cincinnati? How did you even know about the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center?" Excellent questions. I have long been a social justice advocate, and spent my practicum time in graduate school working with the archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The longing for freedom is just in my blood, I guess. I also have a longtime friend who has lived in the area for close to 20 years, so I'd been to visit the Freedom Center a couple of times before learning of the apprenticeship and applying.
As an archivist, my primary interest is in the artifacts themselves -- "the stuff," as I like to call it. With my information background, I want to make sure that the artifacts are stored, cataloged, and described in the best way to make them easy to access, both for visitors and staff. I've long been an obsessive list-maker and user of databases, so cataloging and describing material comes naturally to me and makes me happy in the best nerdy way.
Outside of work, I am a voracious reader, a fan of punk and '80s music, and a rabid fan of the New Orleans Saints. It will also come as no shock that New Orleans is my favorite city in the country, if not the world. I am a inveterate traveller, and I've been all over the U.S., to Brazil and Zimbabwe on service trips, Great Britain on study and pleasure trips several times, Germany a few times on visits with friends and pleasure trips, and Italy, Peru, and Paris for pure pleasure. It will perhaps not be very surprising that I'd like to visit the three other continents I've never seen.
I'm excited to continue my apprenticeship at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for the next 12 months, learning more and more about museum work while fulfilling my passion for "the stuff."
-Gina Armstrong, IMLS Coca Cola Museum Studies Apprentice
Image: Gina Armstrong inside Senzeni Na? Selected Photos from Mandela! Struggle and Triumph.
“OK, so who are the most important people at the Freedom Center?” I asked the Youth Docents. We were doing a training on communication and customer service, and to be honest the answer I was fishing for was “visitors.” The first answer I got, however, was an important reminder.
“The people in the exhibits. The abolitionists and conductors.” Of course, this Youth Docent was right! Our visitors, our audience, the community we work in and seek to educate are very important. But so are the Freedom Heroes whose stories we tell. It reminded me of a college professor who used to tell us that we studied history “to honor the lived experiences” of the people we read about.
Why should we honor their experiences? Because the Freedom Heroes are inspiring – but they are much more than an inspiration. Freedom Heroes from abolitionists to Civil Rights activists were trailblazers who risked their reputations and their lives for a more just and free society. We would not be where we are today without their courage and perseverance.
Yet most of these people never received recognition in their lifetimes. Just the opposite, in fact: many were ridiculed, outcast, threatened or confronted with violence. Many abolitionists were heckled and threatened when speaking in public. Several Civil Rights leaders were assassinated for their activism. Because of the challenging and often thankless work they did, we owe it to them to honor their stories, just as we owe it to future generations to continue the struggle.
- Nancy Yerian, AmeriCorps Member, Ohio History Service Corps
On April 26, 2014, thousands of middle and high school students from all over Ohio gathered in Columbus to participate in the state level competition for National History Day. NHD is an annual academic program and competition that engages students in in-depth historical research. Each student completes a project on a topic of their choice related to an annual theme. They do months of primary and secondary research on their topic and create a project – a website, performance, paper, exhibit, or documentary – to present at competition. The students in Columbus had already been through school and regional competitions to earn their place in the state contest. Their projects were the best in the state, and they were marvelous.
I was lucky enough to be at the state competition because I was judging for a Special Prize. Every year, the Freedom Center gives the Fan the Flame Award to recognize the most outstanding National History Day in Ohio project focusing on an individual, a group or a movement that have contributed significantly to the advancement of freedoms and the assurance of the civil and human rights of others. The award recipients help “fan the flame” by recognizing that “there is a spark within each of us” and challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.
This year, the theme for National History Day was “rights and responsibilities.” Since this theme fits so well with the Freedom Center’s mission, many of the projects were eligible for the Fan the Flame award. In fact, we received over 50 nominations! This made it very difficult to choose winners, but it was also rewarding to see the incredibly rich research that so many hardworking students had put into their projects. To see some of those extraordinary creations, check out the Ohio Historical Society’s Flickr page pictures of the competition.
In the end, the Freedom Center’s awards went to Erin Barr for her performance, “Residents of Africa Road: Taking Responsibility to Help Escaping Slaves along the Road to Freedom” and Amani Hill for the documentary “Killing a Panther: The FBI Plot to Destroy the Black Panther Party.” The finalists from the state competition will go on to show at National History Day in College Park, Maryland, in June. I wish them the best of luck and, having seen their projects, I know they will do well. Every student who completed a History Day project has already accomplished a great deal and hopefully learned a lot in the process.
- Nancy Yerian, AmeriCorps Member, Ohio History Service Corps
Over the past two and a half months, the Freedom Center’s Youth Docents have been acting as guides and educators in our museum. They have been putting their training to use by helping visitors learn from the Freedom Center’s exhibits. On a typical day, a Youth Docent might talk to guests about the original Slave Pen in our Grand Hall or demonstrate how a cotton gin works. They might teach visitors that slavery still exists today or show a family their favorite story quilt in the And Still We Rise exhibit.
Learning to communicate with the public is not always easy. For some of our teen volunteers, the idea that they were going to have to talk to people was pretty intimidating. Fortunately, practice makes perfect. I recently observed one of our docents enthusiastically demonstrating a hands-on activity to a family. It was wonderful to watch him easily talking to these people because only a few weeks ago he was so nervous that he could barely speak in front of a group. It is amazing to watch this batch of young people gain confidence feel comfortable with the material they know.
Of course training has not stopped completely. The Youth Docents have had a few special experiences since their service began. They have visited Historic New Richmond, Ohio, and participated in Conner Prairie’s “Follow the North Star” interactive program. After each trip, they have discussed what they learned and how it connects to their lives. These dialogues have allowed the Youth Docents to share their observations, thoughts, and feelings about these subjects with each other, and hear perspectives they may not have considered before.
One of the Youth Docent Program’s goals is that through their experiences, youth will be inspired to take action to change our world today. In fact, this is part of the Freedom Center's mission: “challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.” These Youth Docents take up that challenge by becoming ambassadors to teach not only our visitors, but their entire communities what they learn and encourage others to take action as well. They have made connections between the history we teach here and making an impact on the world they live in today. Click here to learn how to apply for this unique opportunity!
-Nancy Yerian, AmeriCorps Member, Ohio Local History Corps
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the home to a truly unique collection of artifacts. These pieces of the past share stories of courage, cooperation and perseverance, the cornerstones of freedom movements throughout history.
Earlier this year, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center accepted a very important artifact into the Permanent Collection. An early printing of the First Edition of the book 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup was graciously donated by longtime Freedom Center supporters Francie and John Pepper.
In this narrative, Solomon Northup, born a free man of color, shares his story of being kidnapped into a life of slavery. Solomon was owned by three different men during his twelve years of enslavement, but he never lost the hope of finding freedom. When the opportunity presented itself, Solomon courageously revealed his story to a white gentleman who outwardly opposed the institution of slavery. He agreed to help by sending a letter about Solomon’s enslavement to friends in the North. In 1853, Solomon regained his freedom and returned to his family in New York, a free man. Solomon Northup published his original narrative in 1853, immediately after escaping from slavery.
Curatorial staff at the Freedom Center were thrilled to receive this rare copy of 12 Years a Slave. The book is in excellent condition and can potentially be shared with visitors for years to come. As staff work diligently to reveal stories about the triumph of the human spirit, this book serves as a vehicle for education staff to interpret the lives of individuals who experienced the horrors of chattel slavery in America. Slave narratives like 12 Years a Slave teach us today that a single person has the power to advocate for abolition.
The book 12 Years a Slave is on display in the Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes gallery. Be sure see this historic book while taking the Solomon Northup Tour at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Cori Sisler, Manager of Collections and Exhibitions
The Anti-Slavery Record was an abolitionist series published for the American Anti-Slavery Society by R. G. Williams. The monthly was published in New York and had a three year run from 1835 to 1837. Issues of the Anti-Slavery Record were bought and read in huge numbers while in print. With the intention of sharing anti-slavery sentiments with a broad audience, most issues included an illustration on the first page that depicted the evils of chattel slavery.
Pictured here is the unsigned illustration on the first page of the December 1835 issue of The Anti-Slavery Record. This pamphlet is from the Collection of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
-Cori Sisler, Manager of Collections and Exhibitions
Our friends at the International Justice Mission made an exciting announcement this morning. Their President and CEO, Gary Haugen, released his brand new book, The Locust Effect, which details the reality of brutal, constant, and unchecked violence that confronts most of the world’s poor.
At the Freedom Center we challenge and inspire people to take courageous steps for freedom by telling stories like Gary’s, as we did in our documentary Journey to Freedom. We tell these stories so people will be empowered to join with Gary and IJM, and others like them, in attacking injustices like the scourge of violence that greets the extremely poor at nearly every turn. We tell these stories because true freedom can only come when everyone can enjoy the basic protection from violence that most of the developed world experiences.
Globally, the facts are stunning:
Learn more by visiting Invisible: Slavery Today, the world’s first permanent, museum-quality exhibit on modern slavery, housed at the Freedom Center and developed with Free the Slaves, GoodWeave, International Justice Mission, and Polaris Project,
The Locust Effect gets to the most basic – and perhaps most shocking – point on page 36 of the very first chapter:
“The most fundamental systems of law and order (which communities in affluent countries consider the most basic public service) have been so useless for so long in much of the developing world that violent criminals preying upon the poor don’t give it a second thought – and tragically, much of the world has ceased to give a second thought to fixing or even understanding the breakdown”
Perhaps we’ve been lulled into a sense of complacency by the appearance of justice – by the mirage that is reflected off of the statue books and courtrooms we’ve come to associate with the Rule of Law. Gary’s book shatters the illusion and makes very clear the drastic consequences for the world’s poor.
We simply can’t accept the mere appearance of justice anymore, and The Locust Effect offers a guidepost on how to get started.
Check out this unforgettable video that shows what the world is up against as we work together to help our poorest neighbors. You won’t want to miss the powerful moment at 1:48 - - our fight against poverty is worth safeguarding. Click here to see the video.
Want more? Check out The Locust Effect, by IJM’s president Gary A. Haugen, which releases today.
Note: Luke Blocher, Director of Strategic Initiatives, joined state and national anti-trafficking leaders in Columbus on January 9, 2014 and delivered these remarks. He was joined by keynote speaker Theresa Flores, human trafficking survivor and founder of Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (SOAP); Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner; Ohio Human Trafficking Coordinator Elizabeth Ranade-Janis; Former CEO of Procter & Gamble and Founding Counselor for the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking John Pepper Jr.; Judges Paul Herbert and Greg Singer; U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart; Director of the Attorney General’s Division of Children’s Initiatives Melinda Sykes; and human trafficking survivors.
You can watch the remarks below or at The Ohio Channel, a service of Ohio’s Public Broadcasting stations. Freedom Center Honorary Co-Chair of the Board, Mr. John Pepper’s remarks begin at 66:03. Luke Blocher’s remarks follow, beginning at 86:52. Both can be watched in 35 minutes.
The Freedom Center is a museum on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati. We are located there, on the border between slave and free states, because close to 60% of all the courageous slaves who fled north on the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the Civil War did so by crossing the Ohio within 30 miles of our location.
Our mission is to tell the stories of freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad, through to contemporary times, inspiring and challenging people to take courageous steps for freedom today.
In other words, we stand firmly rooted in an era that revealed the best of courage, cooperation, and perseverance…and demand that people do better today.
We do this through our exhibits, through programming we host in our building, and – increasingly – through digital content and media.
So what is it that we say people should learn from this history, as it relates to the challenges we face today?
First: Slavery is not a historical concept. The form of legal, chattel slavery that dominated our nation’s politics for much of our first 100 years is, Thank God, a piece of history. But the exploitation and control of one human by another, for the purposes of one profiting from the other’s labor, continues. It continued in this country after the Civil War, as it did around the world. And it continues everywhere today, including here in our State.
Importantly, though - and this is the main point I want to make today to this audience – abolition is not a historic concept either. In our schools and in our culture, we celebrate the conductors on the Underground Railroad, and the abolitionists who fought for decades to end legalized American slavery, as unvarnished and uncontroversial heroes.
You may recall from your history books, however, that the idea slavery could be outlawed was, for many, many years, a ridiculous proposition. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of an economic and cultural force more potent than “the slave power” of the first half of the 19th century. Yet these abolitionists fought day by day; they built a movement, brick by brick. And eventually, they won.
Today we face a different battle. Instead of a concentrated political and economic elite, we face the forces of ignorance and indifference, and of shadowy but highly organized criminal networks who feed on both.
But while the game may have changed, the way to win has not - the simple truth remains that a collection of committed individuals, united around the basic cause of human freedom, can stamp out slavery.
Indeed, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, it is the only thing that ever has.
This is the story we tell at the Freedom Center, so that the people we touch will recognize slavery is still a problem they must confront, and believe they have the power to do something about it.
YOU are our evidence. The people in this room, and the people all across the world who continue the work of the great 19th Century Abolitionists. YOU demonstrate that abolition is not merely a historic concept.
Think about it this way:
At the Freedom Center, we celebrate how John Parker, himself a former slave, traveled into Kentucky from Ripley, Ohio to ferry escaping slaves across the Ohio River to freedom. TODAY, people like the Salvation Army and International Justice Mission and so many others similarly extend their hand to help people escape their traffickers. But we can do more.
Back then in Ripley, the Rev. John Rankin opened his home to keep runaway slaves safe as they continued their journey to freedom. TODAY, safe houses do this same work here, at places like the Oasis House, and around the world. Although we need much more.
In 19th century Cincinnati, Katie Coffin opened her home as a transitional place, for escaping slaves to reclaim their mental, physical and spiritual health. TODAY, many different transitional homes staffed with dedicated caregivers provide a sanctuary for survivors to move from slavery to a true and empowered freedom. Although, again, we need more.
A Governor who sat in this very building, Salmon Chase, was first a lawyer in Cincinnati who regularly challenged the system of legal slavery and advocated on behalf of escaping slaves in court. TODAY, lawmakers like Theresa Fedor are making policy that allows lawyers and investigators to bring traffickers to justice for the first time, and to change the cost-benefit analysis of choosing a life of criminal trafficking. But we need more.
Most importantly, back then people like Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup, and Harriett Jacobs - men and women of almost unfathomable courage - had the will, the temerity, to escape from slavery and then to spend their lives telling their story and forcing our country to face the ugly truth of chattel slavery. TODAY, we have heroes like Theresa Flores, Rachel Lloyd and my new friend Katalea from Wright State who do the same. Their impact, and their courage, can’t possibly be overstated. As Rep Flores and I were discussing last night, we need to give them an even greater voice.
These are the stories that we tell. We tell them in our exhibits, like the world’s first museum quality exhibit Invisible: Slavery Today; in our programming, like the annual reception with the State Department Trafficking in Person Report Heroes and the unique academics-to-activism Historians against Slavery Conference;
and in media like our original documentary Journey to Freedom. This film, which is available on youtube and dvd, tells the parallel stories of Solomon Northup in 1840 and Cambodian Prum Vannak. You may have heard of Solomon’s story from the new film 12 Years a Slave. Vannak’s story is eerily similar, but it took place in Southeast Asia less than ten years ago. The film also tells the parallel stories of abolitionists in each era, and concludes by asking viewers to join the network of these abolitionists which spans hundreds of years and every continent. It has been screened at over 50 US embassies around as an integral part of the U.S. State Department’s public programming, and is available for use by anyone who wants to introduce this topic to broad audiences.
This has been our part of this movement, but WE need to do more. More to tell your stories, so that others join this movement.
That’s why n the coming months, we will be re-launching a website and anti-trafficking resource called EndSlaveryNow. This will be a place anyone can go, to easily, but comprehensively, get an introduction to what modern slavery is, where it is happening around the world, and who is doing what to respond to it.
We will also present the full spectrum of the response to trafficking - from awareness, rescue, and prosecution, to aftercare, transition, and empowerment – as well as a way to connect to the organizations focused on each of these elements.
And finally, we’ll provide a FULL picture of the many ways a committed individual can act – today – to attack human trafficking and modern slavery around the world and in their communities.
In this way, we hope End Slavery Now will act as a funnel: attracting people (through the magic of Search Engine Optimization) who may just be learning about modern slavery and human trafficking, educating them as to the true scope and scale of the challenge, and then funneling them to the organizations and issues that most align with their hearts and their passion.
We believe there will be two keys to the success of this effort. First, it must be comprehensive. We are fortunate that the original creators of this resource had close relationships with many of the leading national and global NGOs. To this base, we’re adding a state-by-state directory of anti-trafficking organizations. In Ohio, we will of course be relying on the incredible work already undertaken by Liz Rainade-Janis and the Deparment of Public Safety in this area. We will welcome your comments and suggestions at all times as to what we may be missing, though.
Just as important as this depth, though, will be the way the information presented. This, like everything we do at the Freedom Center, will be done through stories. We will explain the many forms and locations of modern slavery through the stories of the individuals affected by it; we will present the spectrum of modern abolition by highlighting the people and organizations that are leading this charge. I’ve already spoken to some of you here about how we might feature your organizations – and your stories – as a way to reach more people with your message, and ultimately to inspire action. I hope to talk to many more of you about this in the coming months.
This project, As we have begun to say, has a very simple purpose: We all have a role in ending slavery in our communities and around the world. At End Slavery Now, we help you find yours
Let me close by saying this:
The Freedom Center and other museums of conscience and educational institutions exist to tell the stories of heroic people. We exist because people throughout time have chosen to stand up against injustice, and demand change. We exist because of people like you.
And for that I simply want to say thank you, and don’t stop.
On Feb. 1, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will kick-off Black History Month with the Cincinnati Childrens Theater's production of The Frederick Douglass Story. In reverence of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the national Black History theme is Civil Rights in America. Though we should celebrate this great milestone, we should not forget that the fight for civil rights began before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It can be argued that the early civil rights leaders were men like David Walker. David Walker’s Appeal, published in 1829, was a document that instilled pride within people of color and gave hope that change would come one day. He spoke against colonization, a movement that sought to move free Blacks to a colony in Africa. Walker believed that America belonged to all who helped build it, especially the enslaved.
The history of civil rights in America is largely the story of African Americans and people of color, defining themselves in the ongoing struggle to obtain the inalienable rights promised to all Americans. Walker’s ideas about America were handed down to many who become defenders of the oppressed and fighters of freedom, regardless of race and gender. Frederick Douglass is part of this continuum of social justice and equal treatment. Douglass was a commanding speaker who compelled audiences as he toured America and overseas. Douglass is one of the most respected and iconic leaders in our country’s history. My favorite Douglass quote is, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.”
Douglass was a man who not only understood the need for freedom and justice, he also understood the necessary sacrifice in having freedom and justice. Through the tool of performing art, join me at the Freedom Center on Feb. 1, and learn more about the brilliance of a man who was an outspoken leader of social justice. Click here for more information on tickets and performance times.
Christopher Miller, Manager of Program Initiatives
This website was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program