Freedom Center Voices

Monday, July 21, 2014 - 3:48pm

Remembering Lois Rosenthal

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was saddened to hear of the passing of an icon of the Cincinnati community, Lois Rosenthal.

While she is perhaps best remembered as a patron of the arts community, Lois was a tremendous supporter of the Freedom Center as well, supporting our mission from the very beginning. She was a highly motivating, informed and proactive member of our board, and her advocacy for ensuring that the history we tell impacts our actions today was never-ending. Along with her husband, Richard, she made two significant contributions to the Freedom Center, giving to our capital campaign, "Lighting Freedom's Flame," as well as helping to fund our Invisible exhibit, the first permanent exhibit on the issue of modern slavery.

Our condolences go out to Richard and all of Lois's family. She will be dearly missed, but her legacy will positively impact Cincinnati for many years to come.

--Francie S. Hiltz and Marty Dunn, co-chairs of the board of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and Rev. Damon Lynch, Jr., and John Pepper, honorary co-chairs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 - 1:16pm

Meet the Newest Freedom Center Team Member: Brittany Vernon

Hello, my name is Brittany Vernon and I am the newest IMLS Coca Cola Museum Studies Apprentice. I recently graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, with a degree in Africana Studies where I focused on the artistic and literary contributions to American history and culture by African Americans. I have always been interested in history, but it wasn’t until I started learning about African American contributions to American history and culture that I knew it was my passion. I am obsessed with historical artifacts and uncovering the mysterious past lives of the objects and people that are discussed in museums. I am excited about my opportunity to share my passion of history with you and what history I'll uncover during my time at the Freedom Center. It is my hope that I inspire new explorers-- there are stories all around us waiting to be revealed!

Brittany Vernon, IMLS Coca Cola Museum Studies Apprentice

Image: Brittany's museum selfie inside And Still We Rise. Featured quilt: Madame C. J. Walker by Latifah Shakir.


Thursday, June 26, 2014 - 12:00am

The Most Important People at the Freedom Center

Picture of hanging collage of images of Freedom Heroes and Abolitionists in the Freedom Center's Escape Gallery.“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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 12:00am

Still Rising

Two weeks ago, the world had a great light extinguished when Dr. Maya Angelou passed away. I have been thinking about her legacy a bit since her passing, and have been primarily grateful that she left us with such a written record of her triumphs and her struggles and her fights for freedom and equality.

I was fortunate enough as an undergraduate English student many years ago to attend a gathering in Birmingham, Ala., at which Dr. Angelou read from both her most recent work and previous pieces. Her power and passion made such an impact on an impressionable young reader and writer, and I’ll never forget the feeling I had of sitting so close to that voice -- close enough that it felt like the sound waves were beaming directly into my heart. Maya Angelou was an inspiration to me for many reasons, but chief among them were her unrelenting march toward justice and her refusal to be bowed by hardship.

When thinking about how to connect the inspiration I received from Dr. Angelou to my work here at NURFC in collections, I obviously thought about the struggle for freedom and justice, but also the place that guiding light serves in the story of the Underground Railroad and in Maya Angelou’s own story. She was inspired by a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem for her greatest known work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and passed that inspiration on to generation upon generation that followed her. Walking through our galleries each morning, I am lucky enough to be able to take in the great artistry of the And Still We Rise (a paraphrase of a line from Maya Angelou!) quilting exhibit, which features a piece dedicated to the Dunbar work as well as Dr. Angelou’s, and I see the chain of influence in which she is a mighty link.

The world would be much darker without Maya Angelou’s light, and we are called to continue to rise – to overcome hardship and to help raise those also struggling toward freedom and justice.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou quilts, along with over 80 others, can be seen in the And Still We Rise exhibit in the Skirball Gallery through September 1.

-- Gina K. Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice

Sunday, June 8, 2014 - 12:00am

The Making of "Cincinnati's Soldiers"

Creating an Online Exhibit

Someone recently asked me “how do you create exhibits at the Freedom Center?” Well, every exhibit is slightly different, but I can tell you how we created our new online exhibit, Cincinnati’s Soldiers: Men and Women in the First World War.  

Photographs from World War I

It began with a collaboration and a collection. The collection, housed at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives, is a group of portraits of service people donated after display at the Allied War Exhibition at Music Hall in 1918.  Since we wanted to tell individual stories and show the impact of factors such as race and gender on opportunities to serve, this record of people who served seemed like the perfect place to start. We combed through the photographs to decide which ones we would include. As often happens, we found more stories than we could tell in one exhibit.  

The demographics of the portraits tell one story: they are the result of discrimination in the military and aid organizations at that time. In the entire collection – which held nearly 3,000 portraits – there were only ten African-American men, five white women, and no African American women. In addition to portraying racial and gender diversity, we also wanted to show a range of jobs and duties performed by service people in the Great War, so we chose individuals to research based on those factors.

Discovering the Stories

Once we had identified subjects, we had to learn more about them. We used tools such as Family Search and Ancestry.com to look at birth records, census data, and death records to find out more about these individuals’ lives and family relationships. The Cincinnati City Directories told us where and how these people lived. Selective Service Draft cards included servicemen’s professions in civilian life.

For me, learning about these people was the most exciting part of creating the exhibit. Make sure you check out Francis Herman Gow, the Simms family and the professional women (a doctor and a lawyer in 1918!) in Cincinnati’s Solders. If you would like to explore these types of records, visit the Freedom Center’s Family Search Center, where you can research your family’s genealogy.

Putting It All Together

Once we knew the stories we were telling, we had to put the exhibit together. We wrote a script describing the collection and each individual. The archivists at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives scanned the photographs for online display. The script was revised and edited many times. The look of the exhibit was designed by our Brand Champion, Jesse Kramer, and the content uploaded to the Freedom Center’s website. I hope you get a chance to look at s Soldiers, and that you enjoy learning about these amazing individuals.

- Nancy Yerian, AmeriCorps Member, Ohio History Service Corps

Tuesday, June 3, 2014 - 3:58pm

#BringBackOurGirls Event at the Freedom Center

Freedom Center Hosts Free Panel Discussion on Activism and Advocacy related to Nigerian kidnappings

This Friday, join local leaders and activists at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for a discussion of the recent kidnappings in Nigeria and the accompanying worldwide #Bringbackourgirls social media campaign. Participants will come away with a deeper understanding of the happenings in Nigeria and the implications for activism in the age of the internet.

Rebecca Lehman, Coordinator of University of Cincinnati’s Racial Awareness Program, will moderate the discussion. Community partners include Cincinnati League of Women Voters, Cincinnati Junior League, End Slavery Now and Xavier University’s Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice.

This event is free and open to the public.

As an institution dedicated to the abolition of modern day slavery, the Freedom Center wants to serve as a space for the community to discuss nuanced issues like the recent kidnappings, learn about the connections to the wider landscape of human trafficking and reflect on the international community’s response to an instance of human trafficking. Freedom Center President Dr. Clarence G. Newsome recently released a statement on the kidnappings, calling on readers to speak out against actions that threaten the freedom of individuals and cause entire communities to live in fear.

Friday’s discussion will focus on these kidnappings and the international response but will also touch on some of the broader issues of modern day slavery and human trafficking— types of modern day slavery, the causes and effects of modern day slavery and the warning signs of human trafficking.

The conversation will also include the role of women’s education in combating modern day slavery. Women’s education has been one of the most powerful tools in the fight against poverty, infant mortality and violent extremism across the world. Panelists and attendees will be asked to consider the importance of women’s education and empowerment within our own communities.

Lastly, this event will address the importance of responsible social media advocacy and the role of social media in modern activism. The explosive worldwide response through #BringBackOurGirls has raised many questions about the ethics of social media advocacy— in the age of the internet, how do we engage in the fight for freedom in a way that promotes empathy, solidarity and pluralism?

The event will take place this Friday, June 6 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Everyday Freedom Hero Gallery.

Look forward to more information and advocacy opportunities from the up-and-coming organization End Slavery Now. You can find them on Twitter @endslaverynow.  Click here for more information.

-Tatum Hunter, Marketing Intern

Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 12:00am

Maya Angelou's Great Legacy

“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.'”  

 —Maya Angelou

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
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
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. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 - 12:00am

Freedom Center Archives: Preserving Solomon Northup's Story

 12 Years a Slave exhibitNURFC recently aquired a first edition of Solomon Northup's story of captivity, Twelve Years a Slave , now on display just outside of the Everyday Freedom Heroes gallery.  We love that we're able to share this artifact with visitors of the Freedom Center, especially in light of the recent focus on Northup's story with the adaptation of the novel into an Academy Award-winning film.

Unfortunately, one of the realities of dealing with artifacts as old and fragile as an 1853 work on paper is that it cannot stay on display for a very long period of time. Very soon, we will need to remove the item from display and "rest" the item, so that it will continue to be an artifact to be enjoyed in the future. NURFC follows industry recommendations on caring for artifacts in both the permanent collection and those loaned to us by individuals and other institutions. Those standards require material printed on paper to be kept in as low light and humidity as possible to extend display time. NURFC's copy of Northup's story, exhibited as it is in a very high-traffic location, must therefore be on display a shorter period of time, to compensate for the lighting level and lack of humidity control in the exhibit case. After a period of rest, spent in temperature-, humidity-, and light-controlled storage, the book will be returned to exhibit in a lower-light location in our From Slavery to Freedom gallery, where it will be able to stay on display for a longer period of time before again being rotated to rest.

This need for constant conservation of materials, and the different lengths of time various materials can remain on exhibit, are considerations that make our jobs as curators challenging and stimulating. We must battle the desire for everything to be on display with the needs of the artifacts themselves. This service of the physical requirements of artifact conservation also enables us to keep our collections fresh and thriving.

So, while visitors may only have a short time remaining to view Twelve Years a Slave on the Solomon Northup Tour in its current location, we will endeavor to exhibit other historically meaningful and valuable artifacts from our collection, and look forward to re-exhibiting the book after it's had time to recover.

-Gina K. Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice

Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 4:25pm

Remembering Cincinnati civil rights pioneer, Juanita Adams

"We at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center were saddened to hear the news today of Cincinnati civil rights pioneer Juanita Adams. Ms. AdAdams in 2008, courtesy of Tony Jones Photoams 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.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - 1:14pm

"What’s the Story Here?": A Glimpse Inside the Freedom Center Archives

 Seated man and two standing women

Ever looked at an old document or photograph and wonder “what’s the story here?” That’s exactly what we endeavor to find out at NURFC!

Take the photograph seen here. It’s from a collection of cabinet cards (e.g., carte-de-visite, shareable photographs from the 19th Century) produced in the photographic studio of James Presley (J.P.) Ball, a “free man of color,” located on Fourth Street in downtown Cincinnati in the mid-1800s, mere blocks from where the Freedom Center stands today. Ball was a very famous daguerreotype artist, and photographed such luminaries as P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria.

Even with our knowledge of Ball, we are left to wonder about the subjects of this photograph. Are they brother and sisters? A mother, father, and daughter? Was the decision to use an African-American photographer a purposeful stand against the enslavement and oppression of African-Americans? Or was it simply a decision to go to the most famous photographer available to document their family life, a document for which they scrimped and saved, and probably never imagined would one day be collected by a museum?

 JP Ball's Photographic Gallery mark

At NURFC, it is our mission “to reveal the stories of freedom’s heroes,” and finding a photograph like this in the collection prompts questions about whether the subjects of the photographs were freedom’s heroes. I would argue that Ball himself was one – he braved the borderlands to set up shop in a highly visible profession, and photographed black and white Americans alike. Though born free, he did not live in a free state (he was born in Virginia), until he set up a studio in Philadelphia; but, even then, he returned to Virginia to work, right across from the state capitol, and likely harbored at least a little worry for his freedom. He may not have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad, but he was certainly a pioneer in the photographic arts, and deserves to be celebrated.

-  Gina K. Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice