Freedom Center Voices

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 3:23pm

Robert S. Duncanson

“Landscape, Autumn, 1865” a small, pastoral painting in the midst of all the elements of the Kinsey Collection could easily be overlooked. But this painting by an artist who made Cincinnati his home for 30 years is a powerful statement about the determination of a free man of color, the grandson of a slave, to contribute to the conversation about the identity of America in the turbulent period of the 1840s, 50s and 60s.

Robert Duncanson was born a free man in New York in 1821. His grandfather, Charles Duncanson (1745—1828) began life enslaved in Virginia, but moved to the Finger Lake District of upstate New York about 1790 after being manumitted. Charles, his son John and four of John’s five sons, pursued the trades of house painters and glaziers, first in New York, and later in Monroe, Michigan.
John’s second youngest son, Robert, followed his grandfather, father and brothers into the trade, learning to mix paints and decorate houses. In 1838 he struck out with a partner to form their own company, but within two years moved to Cincinnati to pursue a profession as a fine arts painter.

Cincinnati in the 1840s was booming, staking its claim as the economic and cultural capital of the American West. The City boasted a sizable free Black population and as the western center of the nascent abolitionist movement, promised potential patrons for a struggling African American artist. But Cincinnati in the 1840s was also swept by waves of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Black violence. In 1841, just after he settled in Cincinnati, angry white mobs filled the streets intent on running the Black community out of Cincinnati
After a decade of perfecting his skills and earning a living painting portraits, Duncanson found his true inspiration, the American landscape. In doing so, he joined the other leading American painters of the period. At a time when Americans were struggling to articulate what made them distinctive, many found answers in the nation’s relationship to the landscape. One group of painters became known as the Hudson River School.

In Cincinnati, local landscape artists, especially Worthington Whettridge and William Louis Sontag, shared their visions and approaches with Duncanson. Together they read and debated the ideas and aesthetic held out by the British critic John Ruskin. For Duncanson, inspiration was close, just beyond the edge of the City. Throughout his career, he focused on scenes in the Ohio River and Little Miami River Valleys. He viewed nature not as a hostile and threatening wilderness, but as pastoral and picturesque. Nature was “a fertile field receptive to man’s use for farming, fishing and raising a family,” according to Joseph Ketner, Duncanson’s biographer (The Emergence of the African American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872”).
In addition to his work with Whettredge and Sontag, Duncanson also collaborated with James Pressley Ball, Cincinnati’s great African American daguerreotypist, and worked with Ball in his “Great Daguerrian Gallery of the West"

Today, Cincinnatians may think of Duncanson as a local artist best for his wonderful series of murals commissioned by Nicholas Longworth for the Entry Hall of his home, Belmont (Taft Museum of Art) or Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami Rive, which hangs at the Cincinnati Art Museum. But in the 1850s and 60s, Duncanson’s skill established him not only in this county, but in England and throughout Europe as America’s first internationally renowned African American artist.

This small painting by Duncanson in the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection should be seen in relation to Phyllis Wheatly’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral immediately across the aisle and the photo of Frederick Douglass farther down the gallery. As Duncanson’s biographer observes, all three demonstrated an “astonishing ability to rise above racial oppression to create significant early expressions of African American cultural expression.”


Dan Hurley
Interim President
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center


Monday, February 12, 2018 - 1:04pm

The Fate of Frances

As I continue making my way through the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection while it’s here through March 4, I come across a letter written in1854. Reading through it I’m extremely appalled and disheartened by its content. The letter details a slave master by the name of AMF Crawford selling off a seventeen year-old girl named Frances he owns to pay for a stable of horses. What’s bad (as this alone is already awful of him taking part in the institution of slavery), he’s taking her away from her family. Even worst, he’s having her hand deliver the instructed letter transferring ownership of her freedom to her new master, unbeknownst to her. All of this and he doesn’t even have any type of courage to tell her this is happening.

Reading the letter literally almost had me in tears as I couldn’t even imagine someone having to go through that – to not even know you’re delivering your freedom to another person as property, never to see your family again. This is all so this slave master can simply pay for horses. This reminds me that when you truly reflect on America’s history, it wasn’t too long ago that this was the “norm” for our society.

Seeing letters such as this one in the exhibit are truly powerful and moving to me. Experiencing this in the Kinsey Collection helps to reiterate the part of our mission of “challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps of freedom today”. It challenges and corrects misconceptions that are often portrayed about history especially pertaining to me being of African descent. Although reading the letter did put me in a bad mood for a good part of my work day, I felt better thinking that hopefully the next person who sees it will also experience similar emotions and will want to take action in seeing atrocities like this never have the chance to happen again.


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

Friday, February 9, 2018 - 10:44am

A Fresh Perspective

As the visitor walks through the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection they are exposed to the legacy of the Americas. The visitor encounters materials documenting the age of enslavement and paintings by contemporary African American artists. When one typically learns about the history of colonial America and the United States in school, there is a typical cast of characters. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Betsy Ross come to mind. In fairness, figures like Crispus Attucks and Sacajawea are discussed, but often in service of a larger narrative about mostly white, male American heroes. The pieces in the Kinsey Collection provide a different and necessary point of view; namely, America’s African roots.

Through primary sources, works of art and artifacts, the visitor learns about the experiences of African Americans and how they contributed to the fabric of the United States. A marriage certificate from the 16th century testifies to two enslaved people sharing their lives with one another in Spanish Florida. An early edition of 18th century African American poet Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral signifies the author’s genius. Born in West Africa, Wheatley was an enslaved worker who lived in Boston during the 1760s and 70s. Her poetry, touching on subjects from the early years of Harvard University to “His Excellency, George Washington” provides a unique perspective on the crucible of the American Revolution. Small wonder the “father of our country” asked to meet with her. Meanwhile, works of art by figures such as Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett proclaim the influence African American artists have had on the American aesthetic.

The Kinsey Collection is simultaneously reflective and forward-thinking. It encapsulates the contributions African Americans have made to the history, society, and art of the Americas. I am proud to work with a museum hosting such a rich collection of material culture.


Jonathan Turbin
Education Team: Researcher and Floor Staff
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 4:39pm

This Small Book

The Negro Motorist Green Book, published from 1936 to 1966 by New York City mailman, Victor Hugo Green, was used by African American travelers to traverse a hostile American landscape when trying to get from place to place. When the Green Book arrived at our museum, it needed to be encapsulated for display. I had the opportunity to page through the book before preparing it for the exhibition.

What strikes one immediately about this publication is how small it is. This book contained all the places that were known to be safe or somewhat tolerant of African American travelers throughout the entire country. In 1941, every state, city and town fit into a book that was no more than 20, 8.5” x 5” pages. With 48 States in our Union, just 20 small pages were offered to provide safe havens for lodging, food and other necessities. African American citizens needed this book to safely navigate their own country. I speak of citizens who were denied access to restrooms and had to stop on the side of the road to relieve themselves. Citizens who traveled under the cover of darkness, because it was safer than driving in the daylight. Citizens for whom getting a flat tire in the wrong place meant facing a possible life or death situation. I am speaking of citizens whose lives were literally on the line as they tried to travel their own roads in their own country. This book was made for survival.



A book that should never have had to exist in a country that claims to be the “Land of the free and the home of the brave” These travelers are the ones who were brave, but they certainly weren’t free. Our country has a great many sins. This is one. There are areas today, in 2018, throughout our nation that are still unsafe for people of color and other minority groups to travel. Our society owes every single person affected by this a better existence. See the copy we have in the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection here at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center as we're in the final weeks.


Jesse Kramer
Creative Director
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Tuesday, February 6, 2018 - 4:52pm

The Works of Ernie Barnes

During my work day, I like to spend about 20 – 30 minutes checking out the exhibits. Of course being that the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection is our newest temporary exhibit, I’ve been spending time seeing rarities I know I’ll probably never have the opportunity to see again.

As I’ve worked my way to some of the last pieces of the exhibit, I come across paintings from an artist by the name of Ernie Barnes. Something about his work titled “Slow Drag” seems quite familiar to me as I carefully examined the elongated figures on the paintings. As I get on the elevator to head back to my desk it suddenly comes to me. The figures look just like a picture my late aunt had in her home. Once I’m at my desk, I google “Works of Ernie Barnes” images and I see just what I envisioned from my memory – a picture of his most famous painting “The Sugar Shack”.



Seeing that image along with his pieces in the Kinsey Collection brought back so many memories of spending time at my aunt’s home. I also began recalling other places I saw the painting that included other homes and black-owned, mom-and-pop businesses. From this realization I came to appreciate how much of an impact Barnes has had on Black culture, (even learning that Marvin Gaye used the image for his 1976 “I Want You” album cover). It was especially interesting learning that he was an actor and a football player. He used his art to convey the Black experience in America, especially in a feature he used in his paintings in which the figures had their eyes closed. He says “We stop at color quite often. So one of the things we have to be aware of is who we are in order to have the capacity to like others. But when you cannot visualize the offerings of another human being you're obviously not looking at the human being with open eyes”, as the reason behind this preferred feature in his work. 



Many people tend to overlook the small yet significant stories African Americans have contributed to not only Black culture, but American culture. This little jewel learning about Ernie Barnes and the impact of his work will be something I’ll always cherish as it is exactly the message the Kinsey’s want all guests to take away – learning about the subtle but meaningful impacts and contributions African Americans have made to this country.


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

Monday, February 5, 2018 - 3:24pm

Harper's Magazine

As the people of Alabama voted, the cover of Harper's Magazine from November 16, 1867 [which is part of the Kinsey Collection now on display at the Freedom Center] takes on special meaning to me.

Millions of people, both of African and European descent fought to end slavery (finally achieved by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865) and the recognition of the basic human and civil rights to the formerly enslaved (14th Amendment in July 1868). Almost immediately after the war, Freedman began voting, as depicted here in November 1867. Harper's took note of "the good sense and discretion, and above all the modesty" displayed by the freedmen. The magazine went on to note that they displayed no sense of exaltation or defiance, but were "serious, solemn and determined."

But as we know, the former Confederates, and, in fact, many in the North, resisted the important right of the Freedmen to vote, necessitating the effort to adopt the 15th Amendment in February, 1870.

If only that had been the end of the story. Jim Crow segregation suppressed the vote of African Americans with a merciless hand at the close of Reconstruction, culminating in the late 1890s. Voter suppression was enforced with literacy laws and poll taxes, as well as violence perpetrated by the KKK.

Fighting for the right to vote was a principal goal of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and '60s, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A Supreme Court decision in 2013 weakened the ability of the federal government to protect minority voting and various forces have used ways to reduce minority voter registration and influence.
Alabama has been at the center of the struggle for full citizenship and voting rights at every turn. Today, if the Black voters of the state turn out, they could be the deciding factor in this critical special election for the U.S. Senate.

Visit the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection for inspiration and insight at the Freedom Center through February.


Dan Hurley
Interim President
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Friday, February 2, 2018 - 3:53pm

Brown vs. Board

The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection has an incredibly broad range of objects and art to take in. My favorite item in the collection is the signed decision letter for Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. This document, unanimously approved and signed by the Supreme Court Justices holds special significance for me.

This past September marked the 60-year anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School. Our exhibit Mandela: The Journey to Ubuntu opened at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock the same weekend as this important anniversary. Several members of the Little Rock Nine attended the exhibit opening and the following day there was a ceremony in the auditorium of the high school commemorating their courageous actions 60 years prior.



Each of the surviving eight students spoke, reflecting on their experiences at Central. It was one of those rare times that you realize you are living in a moment of historic significance. Hearing those brave eight individuals speak in that auditorium was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. It may well be the most important moment I ever witness. Two months after returning home from that trip, we began the installation of the Kinsey Collection. Holding the document that allowed those nine brave students access to Little Rock Central, the gravity of the piece was not lost on me. This document is here in our gallery, an unassuming 8.5” x 11” piece of paper with five signatures that forever changed the course of American history, the lives of the Little Rock Nine and every student that followed.


Jesse Kramer
Creative Director
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center