Chronicles of the Struggle of Slaves in Pre Civil War America

February 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: “Her first glance was at the river, which lay, like Jordan, between her and the Canaan of Liberty on the other side.” The words, describing a slave’s flight to freedom, are from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The river is the Ohio.

And today, on its banks in Cincinnati, the new National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has been created to tell the story of those who struggled to escape slavery. Spencer Crew is the museum’s director.

SPENCER CREW: People would come across the Ohio and first touch freedom. So we are right here, where people found freedom for the first time. For us, the symbolism is really wonderful and really powerful.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the main focus here is on those who risked their lives to escape their shackles and head north on the so-called “underground railway” — a house here, a hiding place there.

SPENCER CREW: A lot of people first think of it as a railroad in the traditional sense and that it’s something that goes underground. But in fact, it’s really just the loose organization of individuals who are dedicated to either escaping from slavery themselves or helping those who are escaping make their way to freedom and on to better lives. So it’s about helping people get opportunity.

JEFFREY BROWN: An estimated 100,000 slaves fled the south for the harrowing journey north, hoping to reach freedom in Canada. About half were recaptured.

Those on the run were often aided by a network of free blacks and abolitionist whites who also took tremendous risks.

SPENCER CREW: The laws of the land, like the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and others, really said that you were breaking the law to be involved in the underground railroad. So people had to be very secretive.

JEFFREY BROWN: The museum’s most powerful display is an actual slave pen from Maysville, Kentucky.

CARL WESTMORELAND: If you were up on the second floor, 14 and over, male, you would have been chained and shackled.

JEFFREY BROWN: Men, women and children, brought west from Virginia, which had a labor surplus, would be packed in here and held for weeks or months until sold or sent down river to auction in southern cities like Natchez, Mississippi.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this building held slaves. This is where they were kept?


JEFFREY BROWN: Carl Westmoreland, a senior adviser to the museum, described how John Anderson, the pen’s owner in the 1830s, ran his slave trading business.

CARL WESTMORELAND: In his letters, he talked about it the way farmers would talk about futures or the market price of crops. If the market was down, they would be kept here for months.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then they would be taken down the river to wherever.

CARL WESTMORELAND: This building sat 12 miles south of the Ohio River. So in a half day’s walk, they would load them on flatboats and then start the 1,400 mile journey down to Natchez.

JEFFREY BROWN: The slave pen was preserved almost completely intact, because a barn was built over it in the late 1800s. For Westmoreland, it was a stunning moment when he went to see the farm’s owner.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you know what it was right away?

CARL WESTMORELAND: I felt the way I did when I went to Auschwitz.

I cried the minute I — I stayed in here about an hour and a half. He just let me alone. It was a chill and a feeling I’ll never forget.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have — you can trace some of your own family history to places like this.

CARL WESTMORELAND: My mother’s family was in slavery in Virginia, and they were brought through the Cumberland Gap to Richland, Kentucky, by the Walker Family. My father’s last name was Westmoreland. They came from Virginia. And they were taken in chains over to Stone Mountain, Georgia, where they were emancipated.

So — 95 percent of the black families who live west of the Alleghenies– one million of the them were brought west to clear the land, to plant it, to harvest it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And brought to a place like this.

CARL WESTMORELAND: Brought to a place like this and then dispersed — husbands, wives separated, children separated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even as the museum was under construction racial tension was high in Cincinnati, culminating in riots in 2001.

And at the museum, there’s a conscious attempt to bring its story up to date. Contemporary heroes are prominently featured. Children can leave their thoughts and drawings on a Freedom Wall and visitors are asked to think about their own lives in the context of this history.

Ramona Everidge came with her high school class.

RAMONA EVERIDGE: I feel like it’s showing people to stop violence. Because all this violence, it’s people like us, black people, already went through — already struggled to come from. Why go back to violence? We just came — escaped from all that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Director Spencer Crew compares his center to museums dedicated to the Holocaust or other painful historical periods.

SPENCER CREW: There are a new group of museums which we refer to often as ‘museums of conscience,’ and they are places where they are really beginning to challenge visitors to think about the world, to think about their responsibility as members of that society and to find ways to either prevent things that are inappropriate from happening in the future or steps they can take to make that world better.

CARL WESTMORELAND: There’s Simon, and, of course, there’s John, who was epileptic. There’s America, there’s Ghana, and they were sold at auction.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Carl Westmoreland uses the names of those held in the slave pen as a lesson of hope, especially for young visitors to the museum.

CARL WESTMORELAND: The upside is that we emerged from places like this. Every one of us came out of a place like this and became, like my father, a CPA, or became doctors, or just became the best janitor in the place.

But we survived places like this, unheated, chained, and it didn’t break us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Museum officials estimate this mix of the past and present will draw some 200,000 visitors a year.