Freedom Center Voices

Thursday, May 1, 2014 - 12:10pm

Youth Docents as Freedom Ambassadors

Youth Docents Begin Service

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.

A Youth Docent talks to a group of visitors about cotton using samples and a model of a cotton gin.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.

More to Learn

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.Youth Docents stand around the grave marker of Salmon P. Chase at Spring Grove Cemetery.

Beyond Our Walls

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - 1:50pm

Part of the Solution?

 Forced labor sculptureOne of the things I relish about my work at NURFC is the chance to develop a deeper understanding about enslavement today and the steps I can take in my own life to end it.

Our Invisible: Slavery Today  gallery is jam-packed with facts and stories surrounding those who daily face conditions that make exploitation easy. The light bulb moment for me has been not that there are enslaved people still extant, but the industries in which forced labor is used to keep prices down on goods I personally might use and buy, making me complicit.

I, like many people, make many choices when buying products, and for many reasons, some even political. But I think I’m too eager, as so many of us are, to make price the bottom line choice, without ever thinking about how that low, low price is possible. I try to be a good global citizen by buying fair trade, especially in industries I know to be worker exploitative, like clothing, chocolate, coffee, and jewelry. But it did not occur to me before visiting NURFC that my price on a rug or bricks could be made possible by child or forced labor. Now that I am aware, I will look for products by goodweave, for instance, which combats child labor in the rug weaving industry.

For more information about slavery today, and the steps we can take to help eradicate it, please visit our Invisible: Slavery Today  permanent exhibit on the third floor.

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014 - 9:33am

Artist & Author Speak

The brilliant artist James Pate was born in Birmingham, Alabama but raised in Cincinnati, Ohio where he attended the School for the Creative and Performing Arts. During his senior year he earned a scholarship to attend the Art Academy through the Corbett Award. Pate’s art education is mostly contributed to discipline, dedication, and consistent projects that refined his skills. Pate’s work has been exhibited in a number of select galleries and museums and is know for his idiosyncratic Techno-Cubism style fusing realism with spatial abstraction. Pate has worked on a powerful series of large charcoal drawings that decry the horrible problem of violence among black youth and the resultant terrorism. In his piece, Defenders of the Corner, the heroics of the black union soldiers are symbolized are merged with a contemporary reflection of drug dealers defending street corners. Pate questions, “What happened between the Civil War era and the present day that causes this degree of dysfunction?”  

Join us at the Freedom Center on April 24 at 7pm for Author & Artist Speak.  We will have candid discussion with James Pate about his artwork.  We will also explore the engaging works of Ohio author J.A. Barnes and artist James Pate. Barnes, an accomplished author and professor of English at Sinclair Community College, will discuss her novel Sherman’s Fifth Corps: A Civil War Novel which reveals the march led by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman through actual and fictional letters, dairies, journals, official reports and the words of ex-slaves. 

In addition to this program, arrive at 6 p.m. for an evening tour of And Still We Rise; Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, the largest African American quilt exhibition.

Cost: $10 | $5 for Members and Students. Click here to purchase tickets.

 -Chris Miller, Manager of Program Initiatives

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 4:12pm

Fighting for Freedom

I’m often asked about my work at NURFC, and the most frequent question is one on the relevance the museum’s focus on slavery has for us today. My answer is simple and coincides with the name of my favorite film in our galleries: The Struggle Continues.

 Still from The Struggle Continues

The film examines the continuing fight for freedom beginning with the end of chattel slavery in the United States at the conclusion of the Civil War. African Americans continued to have to fight for full participation and inclusion even after the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments supposedly guaranteed their rights and this film highlights the oppression of Jim Crow and the fight against oppression of the Civil Rights Movement that followed. But it also highlights the movements for equality and freedom that women, Latinos, Native Americans, and gays have created and continue today. It points out that worldwide, there is still a constant struggle to place every human on equal footing—that though chattel slavery was abolished, there are still 27 million people enslaved in the world today.

The fight for freedom continues. We have slaves to free and fellow humans to lift up out of the slavery of poverty, injustice, mass imprisonment, and inequality. We at NURFC believe that we must light the way to freedom and justice for all, but we have hope that, as the film quotes the poet Seamus Heaney, “once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme.”

To watch “The Struggle Continues,” visit Invisible: Slavery Today on the third floor.

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

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