“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.
NURFC 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
"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.
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?
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
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
By now, you all are aware of the horrific kidnappings that took place in Nigeria on April 15. It is now estimated that 200-300 young women were taken from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary school by Muslim extremist group, Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is a sin.”
Although Nigeria has Africa’s largest economy, poverty and lack of education continues to plague its people. Economic insecurity has created fertile ground for outside extremist groups like the Boko Haram to take root and prey on the region’s youth, constantly surging communities with terrorist attacks. But the kidnappings also have darker and more sinister implications on the everyday lives and freedoms of the girls and women in Nigeria.
In a video released to the French media earlier this week, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau stated that their intent was to sell the young women at $12 a person, to become “wives” to men in neighboring countries. This is a blatant attack on their personal civil liberties and freedoms. These groups, operating under the guise of military men, invade these communities to sell and trade human beings as cargo. Men, women and children in the region live in a constant state of fear and worry simply because they are intent on providing their children an education and experiences that will give them a better quality of life.
As a nation of people who understand the high price of and struggle for freedom and equality, I am calling you to speak up. I call you to educate your communities on the dangers of human trafficking and modern slavery. I call you to be champions of freedom and stand with our President and our nation’s leaders to demand that the Nigerian government take immediate action. For assistance and resources to help you get involved, please visit Bring Back Our Girls to stay connected. Join us in our efforts to eradicate human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Many have already made the call for action. How will you answer the call? #BringBackOurGirls!
-Dr. Clarence G. Newsome, President
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
One of the things I relish about my work at NURFC is the chance to develop a deeper understanding about enslavement today and the steps I can take in my own life to end it.
Our Invisible: Slavery Today gallery is jam-packed with facts and stories surrounding those who daily face conditions that make exploitation easy. The light bulb moment for me has been not that there are enslaved people still extant, but the industries in which forced labor is used to keep prices down on goods I personally might use and buy, making me complicit.
I, like many people, make many choices when buying products, and for many reasons, some even political. But I think I’m too eager, as so many of us are, to make price the bottom line choice, without ever thinking about how that low, low price is possible. I try to be a good global citizen by buying fair trade, especially in industries I know to be worker exploitative, like clothing, chocolate, coffee, and jewelry. But it did not occur to me before visiting NURFC that my price on a rug or bricks could be made possible by child or forced labor. Now that I am aware, I will look for products by goodweave, for instance, which combats child labor in the rug weaving industry.
For more information about slavery today, and the steps we can take to help eradicate it, please visit our Invisible: Slavery Today permanent exhibit on the third floor.
- Gina K. Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice
The brilliant artist James Pate was born in Birmingham, Alabama but raised in Cincinnati, Ohio where he attended the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. During his senior year he earned a scholarship to attend the Art Academy through the Corbett Award. Pate’s art education is mostly contributed to discipline, dedication, and consistent projects that refined his skills. Pate’s work has been exhibited in a number of select galleries and museums and is know for his idiosyncratic Techno-Cubism style fusing realism with spatial abstraction. Pate has worked on a powerful series of large charcoal drawings that decry the horrible problem of violence among black youth and the resultant terrorism. In his piece, Defenders of the Corner, the heroics of the black union soldiers are symbolized are merged with a contemporary reflection of drug dealers defending street corners. Pate questions, “What happened between the Civil War era and the present day that causes this degree of dysfunction?”
Join us at the Freedom Center on April 24 at 7pm for Author & Artist Speak. We will have candid discussion with James Pate about his artwork. We will also explore the engaging works of Ohio author J.A. Barnes and artist James Pate. Barnes, an accomplished author and professor of English at Sinclair Community College, will discuss her novel Sherman’s Fifth Corps: A Civil War Novel which reveals the march led by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman through actual and fictional letters, dairies, journals, official reports and the words of ex-slaves.
In addition to this program, arrive at 6 p.m. for an evening tour of And Still We Rise; Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, the largest African American quilt exhibition.
Cost: $10 | $5 for Members and Students. Click here to purchase tickets.
-Chris Miller, Manager of Program Initiatives
I’m often asked about my work at NURFC, and the most frequent question is one on the relevance the museum’s focus on slavery has for us today. My answer is simple and coincides with the name of my favorite film in our galleries: The Struggle Continues.
The film examines the continuing fight for freedom beginning with the end of chattel slavery in the United States at the conclusion of the Civil War. African Americans continued to have to fight for full participation and inclusion even after the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments supposedly guaranteed their rights and this film highlights the oppression of Jim Crow and the fight against oppression of the Civil Rights Movement that followed. But it also highlights the movements for equality and freedom that women, Latinos, Native Americans, and gays have created and continue today. It points out that worldwide, there is still a constant struggle to place every human on equal footing—that though chattel slavery was abolished, there are still 27 million people enslaved in the world today.
The fight for freedom continues. We have slaves to free and fellow humans to lift up out of the slavery of poverty, injustice, mass imprisonment, and inequality. We at NURFC believe that we must light the way to freedom and justice for all, but we have hope that, as the film quotes the poet Seamus Heaney, “once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme.”
To watch “The Struggle Continues,” visit Invisible: Slavery Today on the third floor.
- Gina K. Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice
This website was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program