Freedom Center Voices

Sunday, April 6, 2014 - 8:42pm

"We have abolished the slave, but the master remains."

On April 3, Director of National Strategic Initiatives Luke Blocher took part in a panel discussion on modern slavery as part of the opening ceremonies of the new Mayerson JCC exhibition, When Slavery Hits Home: Not Just History But Here and Now. Blocher delivered the following remarks preceeding the event:

"I was on the beach in the Outer Banks of NC earlier this week, thinking about what I would say tonight. I was distracted, though, by two troubling realizations. First, that it was actually much colder there than it was here, but much more importantly, that I had quite ignorantly, and embarrassingly as a native Cincinnatian, scheduled a vacation to overlap with Opening Day.  Like many things, though, my 15 month old daughter helped me find focus.

In this instance, attempting to explain the Atlantic Ocean – which was of course really a conversation with myself – its vastness, its permanence, I was reminded, believe it or not, of slavery.

Now, despite what this may project, I don’t walk around with slavery on the brain all day long. Yet, it is impossible to engage in this work and not be struck by the scale, scope, and dogged persistence of the problem. So I figured that was a good way to structure this talk.

First, then, a word on scale and scope.

The latest and most credible study on the subject, the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation, estimates there are 29.8 Million people in some form of modern slavery. The International Labor Organization puts it at 21 Million. These are the conservative estimates. 

Modern Slavery is often referred to by the bureaucratic term “human trafficking”, which can lead people to believe cross-border movement is an essential element of the crime. The working definition of modern slavery most commonly used is actually much simpler: one person forcing another to work, commercially or sexually, against their will and for the profit and benefit of another.

Most of the anti-slavery field today further breaks this definition into 5 categories, which form the organizing principle for the Freedom Center’s permanent exhibit “Invisible: Slavery Today”:

Forced Labor, which is most like our historic American slavery - coerced, usually physically, and without pay; its close cousin Bonded or Debt Labor, which is made to look like an employment agreement, but one where the worker starts with a debt he or she must work to repay – usually in brutal, forced labor conditions – only to find that repayment is impossible and therefore permanent; Sex Slavery, in which women and girls, and sometimes men, are forced to work in the commercial sex industry against their will; Domestic Servitude, where the seemingly normal practice of live-in help is used as cover for the exploitation and control of someone, usually from another country; and Forced Child Labor, which exhibits elements of the other forms in the special context of children, many of whom have been sold by their own parents.  

Almost half of these modern slaves can be found on the Indian sub-continent, where a toxic combination of extreme poverty, over-population, official corruption, and gender and caste-based discrimination has left 12-14 Million of that region’s poorest in some form of bonded labor, with another 1 Million +, conservatively, trapped in the Sex Industry. Another 3 million can be found in China; a half million more in Russia. On a per capita basis, Mauritania, Haiti, Nepal, Moldova, and Benin join India at the top of the charts. 

But this is not a problem limited to the developing world or places we may associate with oppressive governments. 

There are annually tens of thousands of men and women trafficked into the US and Western Europe under the false pretense of a job or educational opportunity, and then forced into both the commercial sex industry and the agricultural, construction, and hospitality industries. A fate they share with natives of each of those countries, as well.

Nor is this a problem that any of us can plausibly say does not touch our lives. There is slavery in the goods we buy and the foods we eat. Documented slavery in the material mining that goes into much of our electronics and things like makeup; documented slavery in the global seafood industry; documented slavery in the harvesting of palm oil and other cooking essentials. And the list goes on. I would encourage you to visit slaveryfootprint.org to learn more, as I know you can at kiosks in the exhibit.

How does this happen? In our world, today? The business is based on exploiting vulnerability – whether it be economic, social, or emotional – to meet a seemingly insatiable demand for cheap goods and cheap sex. It is conducted by organized - crime syndicates and solo practitioners alike.

And business is good. By all accounts, slavery is now the world’s 2nd largest criminal enterprise, at an estimated $32B/yr, behind only drug trafficking.

This financial incentive is, I believe, the key to understanding our second topic: slavery’s persistence.

Nothing I’ve seen better explains this notion than the simple remarks of radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips on the passage of the 13th Amendment:

“We have abolished the slave, but the master remains.”

The desire for slave labor did not start with the Transatlantic and American domestic slave trades. Nor did it end with their 19th century legal demise.

The histories of every part of the world are filled with references to slavery and forced labor. And important recent books like “Slavery by Another Name” make clear that slavery in effect, if not legal form, picked right back up in the former Confederacy shortly after Reconstruction ended.

The truth of this insight can be seen in the lives of the two men featured in the exhibit you are here to see tonight. 19th Century American Solomon Northup and 21st Century Cambodian Prum Vannak lived 150 years and half a world apart, yet both were kidnapped by people they thought were offering them jobs, and later sold into slavery for many years.

When we start to look, we see this story repeats elsewhere: whether it is young girls in a Bangladeshi village, lured by the promise of a better life in India; or the Haitian man crossing in to the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic in hopes of work that will bring dignity and security.

The constant here – and this is important – is the slaver, not the slave. In the beautiful film 12 Years a Slave, you saw the newly kidnapped Solomon beaten physically and psychologically, in an effort to force him to accept his new identity as a slave. On a recent panel I shared with the film’s Director Steve McQueen, Brad Myles of the Polaris Project, the leading anti-slavery organization with an American focus, pointed out that the film could be a field manual for the various methods of control he encounters regularly in his work with the survivors of modern slavery. What we see being done to Solomon happens today in Mumbai and Thailand, just as it does in Texas, and in Ohio.

We have abolished the slave, but the master remains.

I chose the word persistence to describe this concept because it insists on some sort of response. Usually you’re describing something as persistent because, like my young daughter’s frustrated wailing, it’s something you can’t ignore. But for far too long, that is just what we have done. We’ve chosen to believe the triumphant and comforting narrative that we ended slavery once and for all 150 years ago.

Wendell Phillips, along with Thomas Jefferson, is sometimes credited with another saying that more accurately describes reality: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”

This should be our mindset, and the good news is there are a large and growing number of modern abolitionists already there. Pioneers like Free the Slaves, International Justice Mission, and the Polaris Project are now being joined by Heads of State, Multinational Corporations, and religious leaders. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the Pope, the ArchBishop of Canterbury, and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo announced the formation of an historic interfaith alliance against slavery called the Global Freedom Network.    

This is progress, but not success. Eternal vigilance remains our obligation.

Or, in the words of the Talmudic Proverb my friend and mentor John Pepper often repeats in our work at the Freedom Center: “you are not required to complete the work, but neither are you permitted to desist from it." "

-Luke Blocher, Director of National Strategic Initiatives


Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 12:55pm

Nearly Washed Away

Katrina Wreckage and Tears...And Still We RiseNext August will mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the New Orleans levee system that caused devastating flooding. Viola Burley Leak’s 2012 Katrina Wreckage and Tears … And Still We Rise quilt in the And Still We Rise quilting exhibit is a heart-wrenching interpretation of those events.

There are three images in this powerful piece that particularly strike me. First is the tree at the center of the quilt containing the silhouettes of two people – exactly as survivors of the flood tried to climb to safety, often finding none. Second is the painted face, with tears streaming, whose mouth is covered by another hand, indicating to me the loss of voice that comes with second-class status, as many of these residents were seen and treated. Third is the black house with an American flag, a trio of skulls, and a $100 bill, communicating to me that America’s capitalist motivations in most scenarios reign supreme, regardless of the human cost – in this case, many lives.

While there were many neighborhoods in New Orleans affected by Katrina and the levee failure, a disproportionate number were traditionally African-American, neighborhoods where generations of families owned homes and lived happily and productively. Leak depicts these homes throughout history, with images of 19th and early 20th century inhabitants in some of the houses woven into the quilt. Many of these neighborhoods remain devastatingly empty 10 years later, due to the often labyrinthine requirements to establish ownership of property and regain rights to rebuild, as well as the severe lack of funds made available for rebuilding, if ownership could be established.

New Orleans is a particular town that America could not afford to lose, and which it treated poorly before, during, and after the events of Katrina. It is a city that gets into your blood in a most peculiar way, calling to you across miles and years, and Leak’s quilt evokes the anguish of this devastating event in those who “know what it means to miss New Orleans.” New Orleans, and the Katrina episode in particular, stands as a series of lessons we Americans must not allow to be washed away: that we must treat our history with care; must embrace the differences among us, celebrate them like a carnival, not simply endure them; and must allow freedom in all areas of our society – even regulated ones – because it enriches the culture rather than diminishes it.

To see the beauty and power of the Katrina quilt, visit our newly extended And Still We Rise exhibit, now through Sept. 1 in the Skirball Gallery.


-Gina Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 11:57am

Two Stood Up

 Portrait of Sarah Moore Grimke

Imagine being one of 13 children in a family that owns over 100 slaves and believing slavery is wrong. That is the life of the Grimkè sisters, Angelina Grimkè Weld and Sarah Moore Grimkè. But the sisters did not stand by silent, even as children, and swallow their belief in the evil of slavery. 

Eleven-year-old Sarah taught one of the family slaves to read, and was punished by her family for it. She joined the Quakers, a noted abolitionist religion, because of her views, but even they required her to stand up – she was criticized by them for sitting next to a black woman, Sarah Mapps Douglass, at services. Sarah spoke about and wrote abolition, and had her “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States” burned in South Carolina. In 1837, she wrote that men and women should be treated equally in her “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women,” linking abolition and equality of the sexes.

 Portrait of Angelina Grimke Ward

Sarah’s younger sister Angelina Grimkè Ward was just as passionate about abolition. She was a powerful speaker, and caused uproars by speaking out against slavery in audiences that included men. She also joined the Quakers, and moved to Philadelphia in 1819, and later to New York, where she and her sister were the first women to lecture for the Anti-Slavery Society. She published the abolitionist pamphlet “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” in 1835. After she married fellow abolitionist Theodore Weld in 1838, they moved to New Jersey and opened several progressive schools. Both she and Sarah continued to work for civil rights and women’s suffrage after the Civil War.

We should all learn from the example of these passionate women that though it takes courage to stand up for what we believe to be right, we must strive to stay on the harder path of helping those who are not always able to help themselves, despite any personal cost of doing so.

To learn more about the Grimkè sisters, visit our Escape! and From Slavery to Freedom Galleries.


-Gina Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice

Thursday, March 6, 2014 - 4:06pm

Let Us Honor and Celebrate Women

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in collaboration with the Know Theatre of Cincinnati, will kick-off Women’s History Month with a production of We Will Rise:  Selections from The Afghan Women’s Writing Project. This coming Saturday is International Women’s Day and the birth date of Harriet Tubman, therefore it’s very appropriate to have this production held for a limited run, March 7 and 8, in the Harriet Tubman Theater at the Freedom Center.  

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is aimed at allowing Afghan women to have a direct voice in the world and provides tools, training and an outlet to share their stories. Many of the Afghan women have to make extreme efforts to gain access to a computer to submit their writings. Most of the submissions are done in secret—few details are known about how the writers submit their stories.  Tickets for this production can be purchased at knowtheatre.com.   

On March 13, 2014 at 6:00pm the Freedom Center is holding a free public program, If Not For Women.  This program will feature the remarkable story of Lucy Higgs Nichols Nichols, a runaway slave who joined the 23rd Indiana as a regiment nurse, will be portrayed by Judith C. Owens-Laude.  Judith is an author, dramatist, educator, folklorist, and storyteller from Louisville, Kentucky.  This outstanding dramatic performance will be followed by a discussion about the contributions of women from the Civil War to Civil Rights.  This discussion will be led by Dr. Christine Anderson, Associate Professor at Xavier University, and Dr. Holly McGee, Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati.          

Join me in honoring and celebrating women at the Freedom Center and learn more about their brilliance and courage!   

Christopher Miller, Manager of Program Initiatives

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 - 1:46pm

Unknowing Heroes

 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church QuiltMy favorite quilt in NURFC’s And Still We Rise exhibit is Syvia Hernandez's quilt, Birmingham Bombing. Hernandez's quilt commemorates the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963, and the four girls whose lives became the sacrifice that brought Birmingham to finally face the consequences of its evil actions.

Things in Birmingham had been bad for a very, very long time, but the status quo was also very, very good at hiding that fact from the world. Birmingham was a closed city, hostile to “outsiders” and “agitators,” almost as much as it was hostile to its own poor and African-American citizens. But the horrific death of four girls, on a beautiful church Sunday -- very literally sacred time, especially in this Bible Belt town -- shattered that insulation and the beginning of the end of institutional segregation in Birmingham, and, within a year, the United States, brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, Birmingham likely could have continued to violently oppress its citizens for many years; it was the women, in this case teenage girls, who brought the fight into the light.

In the historic fight for abolition of slavery, women were at the forefront, likening their own struggle for rights to that struggle for freedom of the enslaved African-American population. They were in a unique position to point out to those in power, often in their own homes, the moral repugnancy of “owning” another human being, of using someone else’s powerlessness to make yourself more powerful. In the same way, the women of the South led the way in the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks’ refusal to be pushed to the back any longer, finally to that horrible September day when the bombing in Birmingham finally went too far. The women knew that as long as one is enslaved or denied equality, no one can be truly free. We must keep fighting that fight today, reminding everyone that “until justice rolls down like waters,” until we are all free and equal in that freedom, we cannot truly call ourselves the “Land of the Free.”


-Gina Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice

Thursday, February 27, 2014 - 1:15pm

Have You Taken the Solomon Northup Tour Yet?

Join us Oscar Weekend Saturday, March 1 at the Freedom Center, for guided tours of the Solomon Northup Tour!  Tours will begin at 11 am and continue throughout the day at the top of every hour until 4pm.  The Solomon Northup Tour is inspired by the nine time Oscar nominated major­-motion picture, 12 Years a Slave.  Visitors will have the opportunity to learn more about Solomon Northup's journey from the curators of the tour and see the rare, first edition copy of Twelve Years a Slave now on display to the public.

Tours are free with general admission. For more information, please call 513.333.7737 and follow us on Twitter @FreedomCenter. #solomonnorthuptour.

-Assia Johnson, PR and Social Media Coordinator

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - 3:38pm

In It To End It - So What Can I Do?

Have you seen the red Xs taking over Facebook today? Or perhaps you joined in and marked your hand with the X yourself. The End It Movement asked the anti trafficking community and its followers to shine a light on slavery by drawing a red X on hands on February 27th. That red X means that you’re telling the world that slavery still exists and you won’t stand for it. By using your influence and your hand, thousands are carrying the message of freedom.

What Does the Red X Mean?

The End It Movement asks individuals to use their voices to tell the world that slavery still exists in three main ways: Be the Billboard, Spread the Word, and Get the Toolkit. By supporting END IT gear you can advertise that slavery still existeverywhere you go.

Then by drawing that red X on your hand, you can tell your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter followers that slavery still exists using #ENDITMOVEMENT. People will start talking and asking questions when they see a sea of red Xs across their streams! Finally, head here to download the End It Movement toolkit. You’ll get a ton of digital resources to do a bunch of things with, like:

  • Change your profile pics to the red X
  • Print off a poster and leave it at your coffee shop on your morning java run
  • Learn more about the slavery industry & tweet a series of facts, like:
    • The slavery industry rakes in an estimated $32 billion each year
    • The majority of trafficking victims are between 18 and 24
    • In 1850, the cost of slave (in today’s dollars) was $40K; the average price of slave today is $90


What Else Can I Do?

Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about slavery because we don’t know what we can actually do to end it. Not everyone can leave careers and join organizations fighting on the ground – but we don’t all have to. Even if you only have a small amount of time, you can make a valuable contribution. Here is a list of easy ways you can get involved today:

  1. Save the hotline number in your cell phone and call/text if you suspect something. 1-888-373-7888
  2. Head to Slavery Footprint to learn how many slaves work for you. Then look at your shopping habits.
  3. Check the labels of your coffee and chocolate to make sure it says Fair Trade Certified. If it doesn’t, commit right then to only purchasing from companies that guarantee their products are made without slaves.
  4. Fundraise for organizations that are on the front-lines. Take your pick – there are dozens of great organizations working to assist those in slavery. If your budget is tight, then use your birthday as an occasion for others to give on your behalf.
  5. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper that shows readers slavery didn’t end in 1865. Use the facts on the End It Movement toolkit if you need some evidence to beef it up – they share where each of their statistics came from.

Ending slavery is a challenge that’s been around for many, many years – but it’s one that this generation can implode if it takes it seriously. A red X won’t end slavery, but it raises the awareness of those within your circle of influence. Use that influence wisely, and then take real steps in your own life to address slavery.

We can end slavery in our lifetime. Be in it to end it.

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 1:43pm

Ohio Anti-Trafficking Leaders Gather at Freedom Center & Tour Invisible

On Tuesday, February 25th, the Freedom Center will host the leaders of the Ohio Department of Public Safety (ODPS), its Office of Criminal Justice Services (OCJS), the Southwestern Ohio branch of the Salvation Army, and the Greater Cincinnati Rescue & Restore Coalition End Slavery Cincinnati. These abolitionists are coming together at the Freedom Center to announce a grant from OCJS to the Salvation Army that will allow for more comprehensive care of trafficking victims in Southwestern Ohio.

The meeting doubles as a working session on the new statewide Human Trafficking Awareness campaign, recently launched by ODPS and the Governor of Ohio’s Human Trafficking Task Force. The members of the End Slavery Cincinnati coalition will be leading the regional effort to share these materials in order to keep the momentum building around awareness in our region.

Adding a healthy dose of sober reflection and inspiration was a group tour of Invisible: Slavery Today that followed the working session.

“Hosting modern day abolitionists like the End Slavery Cincinnati coalition is core to our mission,“ said Luke Blocher of the Freedom Center. “Like the Vigilance Committees of the 19th Century, these groups are on the front lines of serving victims and fighting slavery in our community. We hope, like all of our visitors, they will leave empowered in the knowledge that slavery has been defeated before, and can be again today.”

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 12:19pm

Rare Book Exemplifies the Triumph of the Human Spirit

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the home to a truly unique collection of artifacts.  These pieces of the past share stories of courage, cooperation and perseverance, the cornerstones of freedom movements throughout history. 

Earlier this year, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center accepted a very important artifact into the Permanent Collection.  An early printing of the First Edition of the book 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup was graciously donated by longtime Freedom Center supporters Francie and John Pepper. 

In this narrative, Solomon Northup, born a free man of color, shares his story of being kidnapped into a life of slavery.  Solomon was owned by three different men during his twelve years of enslavement, but he never lost the hope of finding freedom.  When the opportunity presented itself, Solomon courageously revealed his story to a white gentleman who outwardly opposed the institution of slavery.  He agreed to help by sending a letter about Solomon’s enslavement to friends in the North.  In 1853, Solomon regained his freedom and returned to his family in New York, a free man.  Solomon Northup published his original narrative in 1853, immediately after escaping from slavery.

Curatorial staff at the Freedom Center were thrilled to receive this rare copy of 12 Years a Slave.  The book is in excellent condition and can potentially be shared with visitors for years to come.  As staff work diligently to reveal stories about the triumph of the human spirit, this book serves as a vehicle for education staff to interpret the lives of individuals who experienced the horrors of chattel slavery in America.  Slave narratives like 12 Years a Slave teach us today that a single person has the power to advocate for abolition.

The book 12 Years a Slave is on display in the Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes gallery.  Be sure see this historic book while taking the Solomon Northup Tour at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.


Cori Sisler, Manager of Collections and Exhibitions

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 10:59am

Found in Collection*

 Letter from Charles to Garnetta Lewis, 1944, with stacks of letters

*Found in Collection is a term used to denote materials not originally part of a large donation or that are undocumented. I’ll be using it to talk about interesting stories not necessarily able to be on display in the NURFC galleries.

Charles and Garnetta Lewis, World War II

In honor of Valentine’s Day, which just passed, I’d like to tell you about some pieces on display and in the archives of the NURFC collection that represent an epic love story the years could easily have buried. NURFC was fortunate to receive a large donation from the Victoria Retirement Center in 2013, containing about 800 items belonging to Charles and Garnetta Lewis of Cincinnati. In inventorying and cataloging these items, we realized that the bulk of the materials were letters written almost daily between Charles, a member of the Army Air Force during World War II, and his wife, while Charles was serving in training in the United States and with the India-China Transport Wing of the AAF during the last year of the war.

The thing that thrills me most about this collection is its ordinariness. Charles Lewis is not a celebrated war hero or even a particular trailblazer. He’s a normal man in a happy marriage, separated from the one he loves. He battles that separation anxiety and loss the only way he knows, by writing to Garnetta –- prodigiously. For every letter in the display cases on the third floor, there are four more in our archives! These are primarily Charles’ letters to Garnetta, who kept each of the letters through the many years between the war and the donation to NURFC. Though some of the letters are Garnetta’s to Charles, I imagine it was much harder for him to keep the bulk of her letters through the many moves required of him during the war, rather than Garnetta not writing to Charles as often as he wrote her.

The lesson I take from Charles and Garnetta’s story is one of perseverance and steadfast love, through the many obstacles life throws at us. Charles served during Jim Crow, and trained in segregated Georgia and Mississippi; yet, his letters are upbeat and focused on his love for Garnetta and his day-to-day life as a soldier -– his despair and frustration are with delays in receiving her letters or with not receiving them! We can all learn a lesson here -- love each other, no matter the obstacles, being solid in that love despite the battering the world gives us.

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