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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
-Tatum Hunter, Marketing Intern
“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
This website was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program