Thursday, May 21, 2009

Underground Railroad Museum

The Underground Railroad Freedom Center is not quite in Kentucky, so is not technically part of my Kentucky 50 by 50 project. Nonetheless, I had a day in Cincinnati and had wanted to see the museum, so Providence made today the day.

The Underground Railroad museum is a new, high-profile project of the Great and the Good of Cincinnati. It is located at the foot of the Roebling Bridge, a city landmark on the Ohio River. Its neighbors are the new football stadium on the west, and the new baseball park on the east. It is nicely done. It has a few splashy items - films and audios narrated by Vanessa Williams, Angela Bassett, and Oprah Winfrey, the keys to John Brown's cell, and the centerpiece, a rebuilt slave pen rescued from Kentucky. The core historical section on slavery, abolition, and the underground railroad, are pretty substantial. The arty bits - the animated films, commissioned art, dramatic recitations - are all well done.

The Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a cause museum. Slavery, not the underground railroad as such, is the cause. The abolitionists, escaped slaves, even Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey are heroes. The slave masters, slave catchers, pro-slavery politicians, and fellow-travelers are the bad guys. Wicked, slaveholding Kentucky, visible through the picture windows, is the symbol of the evil land.

Surprisingly, the actual story of the underground railroad gets a little lost in the telling. They have a fine section on the heroic doings of Parker and Rankin in Ripley, OH, a black-and-white team who helped many across the river to freedom. The rest of the underground railroad story, though, is told in a vague way. Cincinnati is refered to as the hub of the underground railroad, but no Cincinnati sites are dealt with in any detail. There is much more told about the overland route of slaves heading south from Kentucky over the Natchez trace than there is about the ex-slaves heading in the opposite direction. Partly this is because the slave trade is better documented than the clandestine flights from slavery. Nonetheless, I was surprised that the museum did not tell more of the what is known about the entire underground railroad story.

The big theme of the museum is freedom in general. The specific kind of freedom served up, though, is that of African Americans. And fair enough. A worthwhile expedition.

1 comment:

Jody Harrington said...

I wish I had known about this museum when I was in Cincinnati last month. According to family legend, a several times great grandfather ran a station for the Underground Railroad in Virginia, was discovered and the family fled to Kansas (maybe not the best choice at the time!).