Now that I've been at the Freedom Center for almost a year, regaling you with exciting behind-the-scenes tales of collections and exhibits, it's time to introduce myself.
I'm Gina Armstrong, one of the IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentices at the Freedom Center. I come to the Freedom Center fresh off a masters of library and information studies (MLIS), with an archival concentration, at the University of Alabama. Your next question is probably "How did you get from Alabama to Cincinnati? How did you even know about the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center?" Excellent questions. I have long been a social justice advocate, and spent my practicum time in graduate school working with the archives at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The longing for freedom is just in my blood, I guess. I also have a longtime friend who has lived in the area for close to 20 years, so I'd been to visit the Freedom Center a couple of times before learning of the apprenticeship and applying.
As an archivist, my primary interest is in the artifacts themselves -- "the stuff," as I like to call it. With my information background, I want to make sure that the artifacts are stored, cataloged, and described in the best way to make them easy to access, both for visitors and staff. I've long been an obsessive list-maker and user of databases, so cataloging and describing material comes naturally to me and makes me happy in the best nerdy way.
Outside of work, I am a voracious reader, a fan of punk and '80s music, and a rabid fan of the New Orleans Saints. It will also come as no shock that New Orleans is my favorite city in the country, if not the world. I am a inveterate traveller, and I've been all over the U.S., to Brazil and Zimbabwe on service trips, Great Britain on study and pleasure trips several times, Germany a few times on visits with friends and pleasure trips, and Italy, Peru, and Paris for pure pleasure. It will perhaps not be very surprising that I'd like to visit the three other continents I've never seen.
I'm excited to continue my apprenticeship at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for the next 12 months, learning more and more about museum work while fulfilling my passion for "the stuff."
-Gina Armstrong, IMLS Coca Cola Museum Studies Apprentice
Image: Gina Armstrong inside Senzeni Na? Selected Photos from Mandela! Struggle and Triumph.
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
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
After watching the film, Twelve Years A Slave, my colleague, Rich Cooper, and I were reeling with emotions. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup gave us goosebumps – not to mention the performances by Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Everyone I talked to was processing the film days later, and we realized how important it was to work through the emotions this film rattled inside of us. Its impact on race-relations, human trafficking, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and so many other contemporary issues is huge – and some place needed to harness the film’s power to achieve dialogue and action. We also thought that Solomon’s powerful story on film deserved to be honored in a national institution.
The Solomon Northup Tour
So, the Solomon Northup Tour was birthed. I’m a native of Saratoga Springs, New York – the very town Solomon lived in prior to his kidnapping – and Rich is a historian of the Underground Railroad (his newest book, Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad, releases in March 2014). Both of us were passionate about his story long before the film, and we were honored to transform his narrative into a guest experience that could create powerful meaning for today.
The tour begins the moment you step toward our elevators in our main lobby. You enter a scene from the film where Solomon and Ann ride in a carriage in Saratoga. The elevator doors open, physically separating Ann and Solomon – a depiction of the twelve years to come. Once you arrive on the second floor, you’re greeted by our beautiful Grand Hall, a two story atrium created by the unification of three wings of the museum: the Courage Pavilion, the Cooperation Pavilion, and the Perseverance Pavilion, the three characteristics that define the historic Underground Railroad and, certainly, Solomon’s journey. The flood of natural light through the magnificent two-story windows draws you to the river scene to the south, where you begin following Solomon’s story.
7 Stops – and a Changed Life
The Solomon Northup Tour weaves through two floors and more than three permanent exhibits. In each of the seven stops, you learn more about Solomon’s heart-breaking story. For instance, on the second stop, you step inside our largest artifact: the John W. Anderson Slave Pen, a real slave pen built in the 1800s and used as a holding pen by a slave trader from Kentucky. While standing in this slave pen, you read about Solomon’s kidnapping in Washington D.C., his confinement inside a pen just like this one, and his first whipping – again, inside a slave pen like this one. You imagine Solomon – and millions of others – standing where you are standing. And, you feel the cold, bitter hatred that crawls out to underpin a system such as slavery.
There are six more stops, each of which offer a glimpse into Solomon’s life and allow you to experience his story. Through artifacts, murals, paintings and portraits, and a reproduction of a cotton bale you’re transported back in time, whispering hope to Solomon and feeling compassion for the nameless millions whose stories didn’t make the silver screen.
Solomon and Today
The final stop on your journey is our permanent exhibit, Invisible: Slavery Today, where you encounter the stories of five others: Alexandre, Kumar, Tatyana, Mariano and Helia. These five individuals share their stories with you, too – except that they’re nearly a century and a half later. Through their courage, cooperation and perseverance you learn that slavery still exists despite our common understanding that it ended in 1865.
Our Final Thoughts
Rich and I hope that you’ll take a few hours to come down to the Freedom Center to take this important tour. We don’t recommend planning your date night around it because, quite honestly, you’ll most likely be ready to digest and process in silence. But that’s what this tour is for – for our friends, family and guests to process their emotions and thoughts after viewing a film like Twelve Years A Slave.
What does this film mean for contemporary America? Can we develop a meaningful approach to the legacies of slavery? Our colleagues at the Freedom Center believe so, and this is our first step toward doing so. We truly hope you’ll think so, too.
The tour is presented courtesy of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. If you enjoy the tour, consider joining our movement by becoming a member of the museum or supporting our mission.
The tour is curated by Rich Cooper and Brooke Hathaway. Tour materials were designed by Jesse Kramer. Copyright 2013.
Valuing personal freedom for everyone, abolitionists truly believed that “All men are created equal.” They fought fiercely to end the institution of slavery, and through the cooperation of many, American slavery was abolished in 1865. One of the most important tools of the Abolitionist Movement was the printed word. Beginning in the 1830s, anti-slavery advocates printed countless numbers of newspapers, pamphlets and books that challenged the slave system.
The mass production of anti-slavery literature provided a booming voice for abolitionists as they exposed the horrors of slavery in Cincinnati and across the country. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center celebrates the power of the Anti-Slavery Press by sharing with others an authentic printing press that was used in Cincinnati, Ohio during the 1850s.
In the Freedom Center’s From Slavery to Freedom exhibition, visitors can read about anti-slavery publications like William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’ The North Star. Additionally, visitors can learn about The Philanthropist, an anti-slavery newspaper published in Cincinnati by former slave owner James Birney.
—Cori Sisler, Manager of Exhibitions and Collections
This website was funded by the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program