“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: 'I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.'”
Those words, spoken by Maya Angelou, help inform the everyday activities here at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Those words take on a greater significance today with news of the passing of this extraordinary writer and poet.
This amazing woman, who lifted herself from challenging circumstances and took her opportunities where she found them – working as a fry cook, dancer, singer and even the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco – expressed herself in ways that gave hope to the hopeless and provided a map for many without direction.
Without deep formal education, she found her voice and wrote some of the most seminal works of poetry and fiction, giving voice to so many without words.
"The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom."
Her words cried for personal courage, self-expression and working for what is right. She lent her voice to many causes, working with global freedom fighters such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela and was an organizer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Before her death she received many awards, including numerous doctorates, culminating with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States.
When she visited the Freedom Center last November, Maya shared sage advice and wisdom with us that will live in our hearts forever. She told me, “Newsome, we expect something new to come from you, you new man.” It is with that calling that my colleagues at the Freedom Center and I feel empowered to continue sharing the stories of the Underground Railroad that risk being silenced, and fighting for those “caged birds” throughout the world who long and sing of freedom.
"Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide."
Angelou's mortal voice may have been stilled, but her words are immortal. They will continue to inspire generations of freedom fighters with tales of courage, personal persistence and an ongoing battle for self-expression.
—Clarence G. Newsome, president
Image: Angelou addresses the audience in the Harriet Tubman Theater during her visit last November.
"We at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center were saddened to hear the news today of Cincinnati civil rights pioneer Juanita Adams. Ms. Adams was a long-time Ambassador and supporter of the Freedom Center and her influence on both the Center and on the city of Cincinnati will truly be missed.
Ignoring advice early in life that being an African American would limit her career options, Ms. Adams spanned a 40-year career in management with the city of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Health Department, retiring as Cincinnati Registrar: Director of Vital Records. She also served as both vice president and president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP, and was active in many other community activities, including the Urban League and Greater New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. Ms. Adams was also the mother of Anthony Adams, a successful attorney in Detroit, Michigan.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was built on, and is upheld by, men and women such as Ms. Adams who dedicate their time and resources to our cause of spreading freedom. We are grateful for her support of the Center and our prayers are with her family during this difficult time."
-Clarence G. Newsome, Ph.D., Freedom Center president
Image: Adams in 2008, courtesy of Tony Jones Photo.
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
1963 was a momentous year in America. A collision of several forces focusing on race and power in America was underway.
A bomb exploded on September 15 at the Sixteenth Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killing 4 girls who were primping in the church basement in anticipation of the roles they had developed for the main church service of that morning. The response worldwide to the killing of the angels of Sixteenth Street Baptist church was one of outrage. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy who served as the United States Attorney General were being drawn into the accelerating drama of race, class and violence in America. The Kennedys, Harvard men, sons of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. who had made his wealth in the rough and tumble world of bootlegging in the 1920’s, had been raised in a compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, found themselves walking a tightrope from crisis to crisis during that year.
November brought lower temperatures across America, and while the issues that had taken center stage in America had not been resolved, President Kennedy welcomed the opportunity to fly to Texas and spread his charismatic charm. November 22, 1963, Air Force One landed at Fort Worth, and when the plane rolled to a stop and the door opened, President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline descended the steps of the plane to cheers, waving arms and smiling faces. The president was in his element. Texas Governor John Connally had a gnawing in the pit of his stomach weeks before the arrival of the Kennedys, and he had visited the White House in an effort to convince the President’s advisors to postpone his Texas trip if not outright cancel it. The momentum of planning and the possibility of Kennedy being able to get out of Washington and do something other than put out and/or dampen racial tensions and violence was such that there would be no stopping, and Gov. Connally, a Democrat, became an active part of the Kennedy entourage that flew to Texas.
John F. Kennedy, at 43, was the 35th President of the United States, and was the youngest president America had chosen since its beginning. Kennedy succeeded President Dwight Eisenhower and he became involved in Cold War issues. He was at his best when he delivered a speech in the divided city of East and West Berlin during which he called West Berlin “the showplace of the free world surrounded by Communism.” He described himself as a “Berliner” stating that “all free men wherever they may live are citizens of Berlin.” At home in the United States the summer of 1963 moved with such overwhelming intensity that it appeared that the President had difficulty seeing freedom in the divided cities of Birmingham, Jackson, Mississippi and Chicago in the same light, but for the moment in Fort Worth, the sea of smiling faces and the eager hands of Texans, young and old, gave him hugs and cheers. Those faces and smiles energized Kennedy to the point that the Secret Service spent the day chasing him as he would leave his car unannounced and plunge into the ocean of love. Kennedy was in stride. The next stop would be Love Field in Dallas where again President Kennedy was greeted by a multitude of adoring people. The Secret Service was able to contain the President in a more effective style this time since the President was aware that he had an audience of 2500 people who would be awaiting him at the Dallas, Texas Trade Mart for a luncheon speech. At Dallas the customized Lincoln that had been prepared for the President by the Hess & Eisenhardt Company of Cincinnati awaited and its Plexiglas bubble top had been removed since the weather was sunny and the President wanted to see and be seen by the people of Dallas. Kennedy had to come to Texas. Kennedy had to visit the South. For while he was uncomfortable at times with America’s most overriding domestic issue, race, he had developed an outline for civil rights legislation that he wanted passed by the United States Congress. With the drama and almost war-like response to the civil rights demonstrations in Southern cities and in some Northern cities, it was important that for the first attempt to pass civil rights legislation since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that President Kennedy visit a Southern city and openly talk about civil rights being an essential element of America’s worldwide image.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy travelled to the Berlin Wall touting the virtue of American democracy and chose to publicly confront the unspoken ugly of legally sanctioned racism in America. Kennedy and his administration became entangled with Alabama Gov. George Wallace over Wallace threatening to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent the admission of 2 Black students to the University of Alabama. In June 1963, the President would send a message to Congress asking that Congress “help end rancor, violence, disunity and national shame” by passing a civil rights bill. He was on his way to court and respectfully confront the White leadership of Dallas, Texas, a Southern town, accompanied by Gov. John Connally and his wife Nellie, and also in the company of his Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the most powerful member of the United States Senate of that era. The Lincoln would leave Love Field headed for downtown Dallas following a route that with few exceptions was lined with waving and cheering people. In the Elm Street and Houston Street corridor near the Elm Street underpass individuals who awaiting the president recalled hearing a sharp sound that caused many of them to fall to the ground attempting to be safe. They would rise to find that the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was gone.
In an AP article dated Saturday, November 23, 1963, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren was quoted as saying President Kennedy was assassinated “as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots.” The Dallas Morning News, established in 1842, in its Saturday, November 23rd, 1963 lead editorial began with the following—“The assassination is a cruel and shameful mark in this city’s history and a tragedy for the country which has been under his guidance.” In a summation of the legacy of Kennedy’s presidency of the United States in articles on pages 4 and 5 The Dallas Morning News focused on Kennedy’s policies and behavior that the newspaper felt would transfer power from the states to the federal government in 2 distinct areas—race and the power of American businesses’ compensation to their employees (minimum wages, prices of steel). The newspaper concluded its thoughts in the lead editorial, “Those who have been concerned with the expansion of governmental control and power nevertheless admired the sincerity and conviction of his philosophy, the gentlemanly restraint he showed in the face of criticism and the good taste he always exhibited in public appearance.” Lyndon Baines Johnson would be sworn in as President of the United States in the presidential plane at Dallas, Texas’ Love Field with Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy standing at his side. Johnson, a man who had served several terms as a United States Senator, emerged from Air Force One a few hours later as President of the United States. Johnson took off the gloves when necessary and at the same time would use his charm and Texas drawl, and yet people understood that he would not accept “no” as an answer on the passage of civil rights legislation. President Johnson also understood and openly expressed to anyone who would listen that passage of civil rights legislation would end the power of the Democratic Party in the American South, yet he didn’t turn back. He would become the anchor man that would receive the baton of the Kennedy legacy and civil rights legislation would be enacted by the United States Congress in 1964. -Carl Westmoreland, Historian
Source: The Dallas Morning News November 23, 1963
On October 22, I along with my Freedom Center family, previewed the new major motion picture, 12 Years a Slave based on Solomon Northup’s novel also entitled 12 Years a Slave. The film, directed by Steve McQueen and now playing nation-wide, is an absolute must- see. From beginning to end, 12 Years a Slave took me on such an emotional journey. I cried as I saw the hardships and turmoil Solomon faced as Chiwetel Ejiofor expertly brought Solomon Northup to life.
Once I left the theater, I returned to the book. A swirl of questions engulfed me as I followed along with Louis Gossett Jr.’s narration that I simply couldn’t ignore: How accurate was Solomon Northup’s narrative to institutionalized slavery in America and what became of Solomon Northup and his family? Lucky for me, the wonderful historians at the Freedom Center tackled the questions I had in our new Solomon Northup Tour.
The Solomon Northup Tour takes you on a seven stop journey starting from the second floor just outside the Slave Pen to From Slavery to Freedom to the very last stop just outside of Invisible: Slavery Today. Along the way I gained in-depth knowledge about the slave trade, the women’s suffrage movement that intersected with the Abolitionist movement, and the laws Solomon Northup was up against as he and his lawyers fought to seek justice in the courts. I was floored and my questions were answered. This tour is a fantastic supplementary tool that bridges the gaps and provides greater connections to our shared history.
Learn more about the Solomon Northup Tour and follow us on twitter, @FreedomCenter #SolomonNorthupTour
-Assia Johnson, PR and Social Media Coordinator
After watching the film, Twelve Years A Slave, my colleague, Rich Cooper, and I were reeling with emotions. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup gave us goosebumps – not to mention the performances by Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Everyone I talked to was processing the film days later, and we realized how important it was to work through the emotions this film rattled inside of us. Its impact on race-relations, human trafficking, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and so many other contemporary issues is huge – and some place needed to harness the film’s power to achieve dialogue and action. We also thought that Solomon’s powerful story on film deserved to be honored in a national institution.
The Solomon Northup Tour
So, the Solomon Northup Tour was birthed. I’m a native of Saratoga Springs, New York – the very town Solomon lived in prior to his kidnapping – and Rich is a historian of the Underground Railroad (his newest book, Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad, releases in March 2014). Both of us were passionate about his story long before the film, and we were honored to transform his narrative into a guest experience that could create powerful meaning for today.
The tour begins the moment you step toward our elevators in our main lobby. You enter a scene from the film where Solomon and Ann ride in a carriage in Saratoga. The elevator doors open, physically separating Ann and Solomon – a depiction of the twelve years to come. Once you arrive on the second floor, you’re greeted by our beautiful Grand Hall, a two story atrium created by the unification of three wings of the museum: the Courage Pavilion, the Cooperation Pavilion, and the Perseverance Pavilion, the three characteristics that define the historic Underground Railroad and, certainly, Solomon’s journey. The flood of natural light through the magnificent two-story windows draws you to the river scene to the south, where you begin following Solomon’s story.
7 Stops – and a Changed Life
The Solomon Northup Tour weaves through two floors and more than three permanent exhibits. In each of the seven stops, you learn more about Solomon’s heart-breaking story. For instance, on the second stop, you step inside our largest artifact: the John W. Anderson Slave Pen, a real slave pen built in the 1800s and used as a holding pen by a slave trader from Kentucky. While standing in this slave pen, you read about Solomon’s kidnapping in Washington D.C., his confinement inside a pen just like this one, and his first whipping – again, inside a slave pen like this one. You imagine Solomon – and millions of others – standing where you are standing. And, you feel the cold, bitter hatred that crawls out to underpin a system such as slavery.
There are six more stops, each of which offer a glimpse into Solomon’s life and allow you to experience his story. Through artifacts, murals, paintings and portraits, and a reproduction of a cotton bale you’re transported back in time, whispering hope to Solomon and feeling compassion for the nameless millions whose stories didn’t make the silver screen.
Solomon and Today
The final stop on your journey is our permanent exhibit, Invisible: Slavery Today, where you encounter the stories of five others: Alexandre, Kumar, Tatyana, Mariano and Helia. These five individuals share their stories with you, too – except that they’re nearly a century and a half later. Through their courage, cooperation and perseverance you learn that slavery still exists despite our common understanding that it ended in 1865.
Our Final Thoughts
Rich and I hope that you’ll take a few hours to come down to the Freedom Center to take this important tour. We don’t recommend planning your date night around it because, quite honestly, you’ll most likely be ready to digest and process in silence. But that’s what this tour is for – for our friends, family and guests to process their emotions and thoughts after viewing a film like Twelve Years A Slave.
What does this film mean for contemporary America? Can we develop a meaningful approach to the legacies of slavery? Our colleagues at the Freedom Center believe so, and this is our first step toward doing so. We truly hope you’ll think so, too.
The tour is presented courtesy of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. If you enjoy the tour, consider joining our movement by becoming a member of the museum or supporting our mission.
The tour is curated by Rich Cooper and Brooke Hathaway. Tour materials were designed by Jesse Kramer. Copyright 2013.
This website was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program