Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Visit To The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

In my previous post, I shared with my readers my review of an exhibit about Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Constitution. This temporary exhibit examines how Lincoln took extraordinary powers during the U.S. Civil War and exceeded some Constitutional protections along the way.

The exhibit is housed for now within the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. After I visited the Lincoln exhibit, I stayed a couple of hours longer in order to visit the Freedom Center. I'm gratified I did. I experienced powerful emotions during my visit, from overwhelming sadness to inspiration and many others in between.

Cincinnati was selected as the home of the Freedom Center primarily because of its importance to the slaves who valiantly struggled to escape to freedom. Ohio was always a "free" state, divided from the "slave" states of Kentucky and Virginia (now West Virginia) only by the Ohio River. For many of the escaped slaves making their way north, Cincinnati was their first "stop" on the Underground Railroad. Many abolitionists lived in Cincinnati and their story is told at the Freedom Center, too.

Of course, the Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad and the routes were not underground. Rather, it was a "network" with multiple lines running from the south through cities like Cincinnati and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "Conductors" ran safe houses, served as guides, and otherwise assisted the escaped slaves on their way to freedom. Historians estimate that more than 100,000 slaves sought their own freedom through escape and a "trip" along the "railroad." Even if they escaped to Cincinnati and cities further north, there was always the extreme danger of being captured and returned to bondage. This is why many slaves continued their journey until they reached Canada or even heading south to Mexico, those two countries having abolished slavery long before the United States.

The Freedom Center doesn't teach the visitor only about the Underground Railroad. It presents the entire history of slavery in North America, dating from even prior to 1492 when Columbus made his first landfall in the Americas. I was impressed that the Center is not politically correct. It frankly relates the story how Africans were sold to European slavers by other Africans, who had captured their rival tribesmen. This fact is not often mentioned in history, but Africans did practice slavery. A nice re-creation of the bowels of a slave ship shows just how horrible the journey was for these poor souls. In the very early days of European arrival, slavery did exist in the northern states, including in New Amsterdam (New York City). Of course, slavery eventually did die out in the northern states, but remained present in the south until after the Civil War.

Original artifacts are shown throughout the museum, including ankle irons, chains, whips, slave ID tags, and other instruments of brutality. The Center is not for the faint of heart. Items created by slaves, such as baskets, rare articles of clothing (most slave clothing is long gone), pottery, and wooden items are on display, too.

The story of the abolitionists who fought long and hard to end slavery is told as well. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth are represented through personal items, books, and wonderful displays. White abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who I am proud to call an ancestor) are represented as well.

A wing of the Freedom Center is dedicated to the history of the Underground Railroad. An excellent interactive exhibit is presented by an African-American man portraying a slave who wants to escape to freedom. He tells you you're coming along with him but asks you to answer various questions, such as when is the best time of year to try to escape (surprisingly enough, winter), if you should take your family or not (the fewer the people, the better the chance to escape), what paths to take (along rivers and streams) and so on.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is represented. This is in addition to the temporary exhibit at the center. Lincoln's growth from being willing to leave slavery as is to wanting to eradicate it once and for all is told frankly and movingly.

The most incredible display in the Freedom Center is what I've included as the photo for this posting. It might look like a log cabin, not all that different from the so-called "Birth Cabin" of Abraham Lincoln. In actuality, it is an original slave pen from Kentucky. How the Freedom Center acquired it is quite a story. Just a few years ago, a landowner (a farmer) from Kentucky contacted the Freedom Center and told them he believed that a portion of his tobacco barn used to be a slave-holding pen. He wanted to donate it to the Center. Much research was done into land records in both Kentucky and Ohio, interviews held with long-time area residents, and finally the experts reached the conclusion: indeed, this was truly a slave-holding pen. The barn had been built around this structure, estimated to date to the 1830's. Expert conservationists went to the site, carefully removed the outer barn and delicately disassembled the pen. Some restoration work was required, but the structure you see in this photo is essentially original. Visitors are permitted to walk into the pen and imagine the horrors that those wretched souls must have experienced.

Unfortunately, slavery exists in our world even today. A section of the Freedom Center deals with this subject as well. It is estimated that 25 million people currently are held in bondage in our supposedly "civilized" world.

The Freedom Center has an excellent gift shop with a wide range of books and other items about U.S. slavery, the Underground Railroad, and current day struggles for freedom throughout the world.

I've read that the Freedom Center has struggled financially since its opening. That is a shame, because we as a people need to learn about this stain on our nation's history.

I was engrossed by my visit. If you ever find yourself in Cincinnati, it's worth a few hours of your time . Hopefully, you'll have a better appreciation for the struggles of the slaves and the efforts of those who fought to free them. I know I do.


Christy said...

I had no idea this museum was so large, and presented such a complete history of slavery in America.

Thanks for this review. I would really live to visit there now.

Anonymous said...

I write for a travel blog, and whenever we get around to Cincinnati we always take care to mention the Freedom Center as an absolute must for first time visitors.

I know that the Slave Pen is the centerpiece of the museum, but I think it's actually that latter exhibit you mentioned about slavery in modern times (called "The Struggle Continues" I believe) is actually the more profound experience.

You can check out our last post about it at

Thank you for your in-depth review. I hope it encourages many to see it.

Anonymous said...

Your web site is outstanding!

Here is a blog entry about the Underground Railroad in Sandusky, Ohio:

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