Voices - Historical Perspective

Historical Perspective

Monday, December 10, 2018 - 10:50am

Human Rights Day and the Continued Struggle for Inclusive Freedom

Every year on December 10 we recognize Human Rights Day—an UN holiday created to celebrate the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Today is the 70th anniversary of this historic doctrine.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most translated document in the world (available in 500 languages) and proclaims “the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being –regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

This year, the slogan for Human Rights Day is #StandUp4HumanRights and encourages simple philosophies, such as the idea that we all deserve human rights, that by practicing equality and justice we prevent violence, and stand up our rights and the rights of others. So, what does Human Rights Day mean in the world of museums? How can we encourage those to #StandUp4HumanRights in cultural institutions?

Here at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC), we encourage those to fight for inclusive freedom—an idea emphasized in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our mission allows us to discuss the difficult histories of America’s past while also encouraging inclusive freedom for her future.

At NURFC, we weave the idea of standing up for human rights into everything we do—from programming, to exhibitions, community led conversations, and guided school tours. Because of our mission, we can talk about our history and the idea of human rights. We are also a certified Museum of Conscience.

A Site of Conscience, or a Museum of Conscience, is a classification given to historic sites, museums, and memory initiatives by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience—a global network of institutions that connect past struggles to today’s movements for human rights. Their slogan—turning memory into action—is a patch we proudly wear here at NURFC.

By being a part of this international network, NURFC can encourage those to continue the theme of Human Rights Day and encourage visitors to #StandUp4HumanRights.

Katie Bramell, Manager of Exhibitions & Collections
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie’s passion is sharing the untold stories of history, and she loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (Masters of Public History) and the University of Central Missouri (Bachelors of History). Her primary fields of study include the Underground Railroad, human rights, and early 20th century American History.

Sunday, December 2, 2018 - 8:00am

Remembering John Brown

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” –John Brown, Dec. 2, 1859

On this day 159 years ago, John Brown was executed by way of hanging in Charles Town, Virginia (present day West Virginia). His crime? The failed raid of a military armory located in Harpers Ferry, VA.

Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800 to a family of abolitionists. Like his family, Brown adopted what many would later refer to as “extreme anti-slavery” views. For the 1830s, these views were more radical than many mainstream white abolitionists were comfortable with. Brown believed that slavery was the United States “greatest sin,” and dedicated his life to eradicate it. He moved to abolitionists communities like Springfield, Massachusetts where he would frequently listen to lectures by Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass—who he would later count as one of his closest friends—and worked with Underground Railroad abolitionists like Harriet Tubman

At age 55, Brown moved to the Kansas Territory with his adults sons to aide support for the anti-slavery forces engaged in a violent border war with pro-slavery forces. It was in Kansas that John Brown would earn his militant reputation that would dominate literature about him for years following. In May 1856, Brown and his sons were accused of killing five men in the pro-slavery settlement of Pottawatomie, KS after anti-slavery settlers were attacked in Lawrence, KS. The incident would later be referred to as the “Pottawatomie Massacre.” 

A year after Kansas, Brown began to make plans for his next big mission—an armed insurrection at the military armory located in Harpers Ferry. Brown believed that with this attack, weapons from the armory could be seized, given to enslaved African Americans, and used to spark an anti-slavery rebellion. A rebellion that Brown believed would end slavery in the United States once and for all. This was 1857, the same year the Supreme Court of the United States delivered a devastating blow to the anti-slavery cause with the Dred Scott decision. Brown and his many supporters believed after the Dred Scott decision there would be no peaceful end to slavery.

On October 16, 1859 Brown led 18 men—13 white and 5 formerly enslaved African Americans—into Harpers Ferry, VA. They captured federal buildings, cut telegraph wires, killed four people and wounded nine. Brown believed that once inside the armory that locally enslaved people would come to their aid to help hold the ferry, but that never happened. After a 36-hour stand-off, eight of Brown’s men were either killed or captured while five, including one of Brown’s son, escaped. Brown was wounded in the attack and taken to jail in Charles Town, present day West Virginia. 

On Nov. 2, 1859 Brown was found guilty of all charges brought against him, including conspiracy, inciting servile insurrection and treason against the state. He was sentenced to death by way of hanging. On the date of his execution, more than 1,000 troops arrived to protect the execution for fear there would be an attempt to rescue Brown. Unable to make a final statement before his execution, Brown wrote a note in his cell before arriving to the gallows: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” 

History has an interesting way of remember John Brown. Often, he is depicted appearing wild and crazed, with a look of insanity in his eyes. But was John Brown wrong? He said himself many of times, slavery would not end peacefully; it would have to “be purged away with blood.” The Civil War, which erupted only 16 months after Brown’s execution, proved the validity of Brown’s claim.

Personally, I believe Frederick Douglass said it best in a speech delivered in memory of his friend on the 14 year anniversary of Harpers Ferry in May 1881:

“If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.”

So on this date, 159 years later, let’s remember the legacy of John Brown—the man who started the war that would end slavery. 

Katie Bramell, Manager of Exhibitions & Collections
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie has a passion for sharing the untold stories of history and loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a Master's degree in Public History and the University of Central Missouri with a Bachelor's degree in History. Her primary field of study includes Underground Railroad history, human rights history, and early 20th century American History.

Saturday, December 1, 2018 - 10:00am

You Can’t Get AIDS From A Hug: Why We Honor World AIDS Day

One of my earliest memories is walking through the hallways of my elementary school seeing posters with sayings like “you can’t get AIDS from a hug and a kiss.” This would have been around the time President Ronald Reagan finally started mentioning the word “AIDS” during speeches and press conferences. By that time over 5,000 residents of the United States – not to mention countless more around the globe -- had passed away from the disease. Many of these individuals were members of populations who faced widespread discrimination. Some of these groups included gay men, transgender women, Haitian immigrants and refugees, sex workers, and people addicted to IV drugs. My uncle Myron who left behind a long-term partner, Pedro, was one of these early deaths.

HIV/AIDS and Marginalization

The vulnerability of oppressed populations to HIV/AIDS infection is a major reason why the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) is honoring World AIDS Day. While it is well known – or should be – that straight, white men of means can and do get infected, African Americans, LGBT folks, and lower income communities are still at higher risk. According to the CDC, in 2016 4,560 African American women received an HIV diagnosis, compared with 1,450 white women and 1,168 Hispanic/Latina women [1]. While this rate of infection is lower than in past years, it is still unacceptably high especially when taking into account the fact that African Americans comprise 12% of the US population.

Meanwhile, while rates of HIV infection among gay men has stabilized, as of 2014 this population comprised 56% of new HIV cases [2]. Young African American gay men – a minority within a minority -- account for more new cases of HIV infection in the United States than any other population [3]. The reasons for this are much the same as back in the 80s when those PSA posters went up around my school; fewer official support networks, more obstacles to public health interventions, and less access to accurate information.

HIV, Trafficking, and Human Rights

HIV/AIDS is also, sadly, highly relevant to NURFC’s involvement in the fight against modern-day enslavement. Sex trafficking is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a public health one. Survivors of this atrocity are at substantial risk of HIV infection. This is due in part to the factors described above, not least of which are a lack of support networks and access to education. However, there is an even more sinister force at play. According to a 2013 study conducted by Harvard’s School of Public Health, women who are forced into sex work typically experience sexual violence. They are also unable to insist that their clients use safer sex techniques. This increases the likelihood of HIV infection 11-fold, as opposed to women who report entering the sex industry voluntarily [4]. HIV positive trafficking victims have little hope of obtaining treatment and may even be abandoned by their traffickers once they become too sick to service clients. It is also important to remember that women and girls trapped in other forms of modern day enslavement, such as forced labor and domestic servitude, are vulnerable to sexual assault and have few avenues for recourse.

Curbing sex trafficking is a major step towards reducing rates of HIV infection. Framing the fight against modern day enslavement in this way could be a major step towards the elimination of both crises. At the same time, it is important not to demonize people living with HIV/AIDS, particularly if they are trafficking victims. Doing so is a form of re-victimization. Fortunately many organizations, such as the joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, have started tackling issues such as this from a human rights standpoint.

Fight HIV/AIDS, not People Living with HIV/AIDS

It has been over 20 years since I saw those HIV/AIDS PSAs on the walls of my elementary school. Since then I’ve grown up, graduated high school and college, and come out as a gay man. I’ve made many friends, some of them people living with HIV/AIDS, from all walks of life. In some cases, I’ve been with them in the counselor’s office as they receive life changing news.

At the same time, I’ve witnessed HIV/AIDS go from death sentence to manageable medical condition. I’ve seen the stigma of HIV infection lessen (at least here in the US). I’ve also seen hopeful signs that there may be a cure, or at least a vaccine, in my lifetime. HIV medications have also become less hard on a person’s system.

Regardless: people living with HIV/AIDS, be they a classmate or a trafficking victim – or both – are not the enemy. They need love, support, and the occasional hug just as much as anyone. After all, you really can’t get AIDS from a hug.

Jonathan Turbin, Modern-Day Slavery Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

As Coordinator of Initiatives against Modern Day Slavery, Jonathan oversees the site End Slavery Now and works to build relationships among anti-trafficking organizations in and around Cincinnati. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Oregon.


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/racialethnic/africanamericans/index.html (accessed 11/27/2018)
[2] https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/cdc-msm-508.pdf (accessed 11/27/2018)
[3] Ibid (accessed 11/27/2018)
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3626049/ (accessed 11/28/2018)

Saturday, December 1, 2018 - 7:25am

#381Days: Honoring Rosa Parks and 65 Years Since the Montgomery Bus Boycott

December 1, 2018 is the 63rd anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In Ohio, it’s also Rosa Parks Day, the anniversary date of her famous arrest on December 1, 1955. We will honor the great Rosa Parks during the month of December through a social media campaign called #381Days.

The deeper story of Rosa Parks’ life was the inspiration for this campaign. The fact that she was such an educated woman that stood up for what she believed in, despite the fact that her whole world changed is pretty remarkable. Many know that when Rosa refused to move from her seat in 1955, she became an iconic face in the civil rights movement. What many don't remember is that she was intensely active in that movement as well.

Parks had a previous run in with bus driver James Blake about a year prior to the day of her arrest. Ever since then, she worked with the NAACP to fight for the rights of the African American community. Following her arrest, the Women’s Political Council called for a 1-day boycott in which they expected 60% of the black community to participate. To everyone's surprise, 90% of the black community became involved.

Due to the large percentage of the community participation, the black leaders of Montgomery called a meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), electing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as President. At this meeting they issued a formal list of demands in which the city later refused to comply. Their initial demands did not involve changing the segregation laws, but inserting more courtesy within the existing laws. For example, hiring black bus drivers and implementing a "first come, first serve" policy where whites would fill the front of the bus and blacks would fill the back.

Responding to the denial of the demands and to keep the boycott going, the MIA created a carpool system to support the community protesters. This boycott lasted for 381 days while leaders such as E.D. Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr. suffered turmoil like death threats to themselves and their families, as well as house bombings.

We remember these strong leaders that have encouraged us and put their life on the line to stand up for what they believed in, and more importantly what is right. After the long days of the bus boycott, the buses were officially desegregated on December 21st, 1956. But the fight always continues.

Blog 1 of a 3-part series. Check back next week for Part 2.

Merrisha Dickerson, Marketing Intern
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Merrisha is a student at Northern Kentucky University. Throughout Merrisha’s internship she has worked to create content for social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for the Freedom Center. She has enjoyed learning how to communicate with different types of people in different departments around the museum and learning something new each day.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - 6:02pm

Mandela Fridays: Exhibition Tour

Fridays at 1:00 p.m. through December 14, 2018
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
50 E Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202

Included in general & special exhibition admission.

Join National Underground Railroad Freedom Center staff and docents for a guided tour of MANDELA: THE JOURNEY TO UBUNTU for Mandela 100, a year of commemoration engagement lead by The Nelson Mandela Foundation, challenging and inspiring organizations and individuals around the world to, "be the legacy." MANDELA: THE JOURNEY TO UBUNTU commemorates the life and legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela through photographs by Willman as he revisited many of the locations that played an important role in South Africa’s route to racial equality and Mandela’s personal fight for freedom. 

Monday, July 9, 2018 - 4:41pm

Confederate Currency and Confederate Memory in its Final Week

You only have until Sunday, July 15 to see the powerful exhibits Confederate Currency: The Color of Money presented by BB&T, and Confederate Memory: Symbolism, Controversy and Legacy.

Since April, the work of artist John W. Jones has been on display here at the museum showcasing images of slavery depicted on Confederate bank notes in Confederate Currency: The Color of Money presented by BB&T. These paintings gave the statement of how powerful the enslaved were to the economy of the South. As Jones says, “history informs art, which in turn artfully reveals more history”.

Confederate Memory: Symbolism, Controversy and Legacy offers insight on how the ideals of the Confederacy are still prevalent in our country today as it addresses the revisionist history and the national Confederate symbols debate.    
See these exhibits here at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center while you still can. #MyNURFC #RevealStories

Will Jones
PR & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Friday, June 22, 2018 - 4:11pm

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Responds to Family Separation and Detention at the Border

At the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, we believe in inclusive freedom – all people, everywhere enjoying rights and privileges of equal number, equal quality, and equal kind. The recent images, audio, and news coverage of children being separated from their families at the border are infuriating and heartbreaking. Many are asking – how could this happen? This practice has been inflicted upon oppressed populations in the United States for much of our nation’s existence; the legacy of the separation of enslaved families, Native American families and Japanese-American Internment are woven into the tapestry of the American experience. Sadly, today, we are watching a global crisis. The separation, criminalization, and detention of brown migrant children demands our attention and our collective action.

Call your legislators. Join a Families Belong Together rally on June 30. Do not be complicit with your silence.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - 4:25pm

What Means THIS Stone?

When I first began my tenure here at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center I was introduced to then President Dr. Clarence G. Newsome’s video “What Mean These Stones?” In the video he addresses the inspiration and symbolism behind the architecture of the Freedom Center and its location by the Ohio River.  While he speaks, visuals of the museum's outside walls as well as images of the river reflect the struggles the escaped endured in their pursuit of freedom.

While going through the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection I come across an artifact the “Gore’e Island Rock”. The significance of this rock is that it came from Gore’e, an island off the coast of Senegal. The island served as a slave port and was the last of Africa slaves would see before making way through the Middle Passage into the unknown of the Americas. Bernard Kinsey mentions that he traced his ancestors to Senegal, which I’d imagine this particular artifact has special meaning to him.

As I think of the “What Mean These Stones?” video and the Gore’e Island Rock piece on display in the exhibit, I see how something as simple as elements of the earth such as stone and water can have such meaningful impacts. Both tell stories of opposing ends. On one end, you have a stone that represents the enslavement of Africans and the beginning of an atrocious journey to a life of servitude. On the other end, the stones of the museum walls and the Ohio River tell a story of hope, resilience and triumph.

Artifacts in the Kinsey Collection such as the Gore’e Island Rock share glimpses of small, yet extremely important stories that the Kinsey’s hope you’ll appreciate. Even a stone can offer a piece of history and challenge your thinking. See the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection as we’re in the final weeks. #MyNURFC


Will Jones
Public Relations & Social Media Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Friday, February 16, 2018 - 12:14pm

Data: Big and Small

In 2018 we live by “big data.” Each of us not only uses data, but we contribute to its collection every time we log onto the web. The question that exposes the modern dilemma is “How much data are ordinary people willing to turn over to Kroger’s when they go grocery shopping?”  And the answer seems to be “As much as they want, as long as I get discount points on my gas purchases.”

Today, data drives almost every decision in business, everything from what aisle do you stock grape jelly, (with other jellies or next to the peanut butter), to what apps get promoted, to how to efficiently design public transit routes in a metropolitan region, to what social service programs get funding. We have convinced ourselves that without data, nothing is defensible.

Data has always been understood as important, though before the digital age of “Big Data” and the ascendency of powerful algorithms, data sets gathered to impact public policy came in smaller packages. That can be seen in several of the documents in the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.

An 1806 report presented to the House of Commons by the British Inspector General of Imports and Exports records the number of British ships and their capacity to carry enslaved Africans (3.8 million) to the British West Indies between 1796 and 1803. This report was part of the larger public effort to end the British trade in enslaved African peoples, a campaign that achieved success in 1807.

But ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade did not end slavery. A reminder of that grim reality is demonstrated in an 1820 schedule of over 500 slaves living on the estate of William Law on the island of Granada. The inventory of assets available for sale to settle Law’s debts includes a listings of slaves by name, color, country of origin, age and any defining markings. This inventory stands as a stark reminder that people of African descent were considered as nothing more than property to be bred and bartered.

One of the most chilling and discouraging data documents in the entire Kinsey Collection is a broadside issued by the NAACP in the early Twentieth Century. A generation after the Civil War ended, white Americans defaulted on the promises made to the people freed from bondage. Rather than the full rights of citizenship proclaimed in the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, mainstream American gave into the mounting pressure from the re-emergent South to subjugate those one enslaved and their descendants.

Legally, this took the form of the imposition of Jim Crow Segregation that won approval from the United States Supreme Court in 1896 in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that made “separate but equal” the law of the land.

Culturally, it meant the flowering of a Southern revisionist interpretation of the Civil War as the “Lost Cause” fought for States Rights, not the perpetuation of slavery. It was this movement, in turn, that sparked the dedication of hundreds of Civil War monuments in the early decades of the new century. It is those monuments that have recently become focal points of controversy and violence. 

Another result of the abandonment of African American citizens was the unleashing of a wave of lynchings, a calculated campaign of terror designed to control American citizens of color. In the face of this terror, the NAACP began tracking the number of lynchings in 1912. The 1922 “The Shame of America” broadside declaring that 3436 people had been lynched between 1889 and 1922 was to use statistics to shock America into taking action. 

The immediate goal was to rally support for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill then before Congress. The bill did pass the House of Representatives by a two-to-one majority, but failed in the Senate. Despite continued efforts and the introduction of other bills, the United States Congress never passed an anti-lynching law. The catastrophic results of this failure are chillingly documented in the most powerful American history exhibit I have ever personally encountered. I am very proud that the Freedom Center brought “Without Sanctuary” to Cincinnati. 

Human beings cling to the idea that assemblage and presentation of facts (data) is the proper way to appeal to reason and advance human good. What is clear, however, whether in 1806, 1922 or 2018, economic, political or social self- interest of the powerful will always dismiss data, unless it is wrapped in a powerful political movement.


Dan Hurley
Interim President
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 10:26am

A Crisis That Enlightens, Informs and Inspires

Each day when I come into work at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I pass the introduction of the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection, and my favorite part of the exhibit: reproductions of covers of The Crisis. 

The Crisis, which still exists today in web form, is the official publication of the NAACP.  It was founded in 1910 under the editorship of W.E.B. Du Bois.  In its over 100 years of existence, it has chronicled the life, time and struggles of African Americans and other people of color.  While fiercely “speaking truth to power” (their tagline), The Crisis has also lifted up the accomplishments of African Americans and opened the way for many African American literary greats to put their work in front of a larger audience.  Langston Hughes, for example, was published in the pages of The Crisis early in his career.

So why does this speak to me?

It would be easy for an entity such as The Crisis to focus only on the negative – and rightly so.  In speaking truth to power, lifting up the crimes and wrongs done against African Americans and other people of color, the focus could rest solely on the negative without anyone lifting an eyebrow. 

But The Crisis never did that.  Yes, they told those stories and lifted up the wrongs being done against people of color, but they also held up the hopeful stories – those of education and literature and music and the accomplishments of the same people who were being held down by society at large.

The story could have been one of tragedy, but they also celebrated the hope. 
I recognize that mission.  I see it every day.

The story of the Freedom Center could have been one of tragedy, but we also celebrate the hope found within the courage, cooperation and perseverance of those who fought for freedom – and those who continue the fight today.

Even in the darkest of nights, a light does shine.  Fortunately, The Crisis and the Freedom Center continue to shine that light for all.


Sherri Fillingham
Director of Development Operations
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center