The Black Bucket List: Underground Railroad

Retrace the steps to freedom many escaped slaves made to the North.

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Remnants of Black History in These Parts

In the town of Madison, Md., John Stewart Canal, a six-mile canal hand-dug by slaves, is an example of the handiwork of slave labor. About 15 miles further along, in the hamlet of Preston, Md., the James Webb Cabin -- a one-room log structure built by Webb, a freed slave -- offers a glimpse into how blacks of the era lived. A few miles away, in the town of Linchester, Md., is the antebellum-era Leverton House and Farm, a two-story brick house with a gable, where owners Jacob and Hannah Leverton allowed escaping slaves to stay.

From Maryland, my retrace of the footsteps of escaped slaves took me to Cincinnati. Ohio, which offered the first taste of freedom from the Confederacy for many slaves, has more than a dozen different stations of the Railroad that are still intact.

My destination was the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a modern complex opened in 2004. Strategically constructed along the banks of the Ohio River, it offers a view across the water into Kentucky, the final stop in the South for many escaping slaves.

The Freedom Center gives visitors a broad, absorbing history lesson, including an overview of the conditions that made the Underground Railroad so inviting for so many slaves.

One exhibition, "From Slavery to Freedom," is a vivid, well-curated show that tells the story of slavery in the Americas. It starts with details of the capture of unsuspecting victims in Sierra Leone and other countries along Africa's Gold Coast, and includes timelines and facts about the importance of slavery to the U.S. economy. It ends with an account of the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War.

A 25-minute film, Brothers of the Borderland, gives a gripping view into the atmosphere of the Underground Railroad. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, it tells the true story of slaves escaping to freedom in the mid-1800s. It centers on the story of John Parker and John Rankin, two abolitionists of the period based in nearby Ripley, Ohio, and how they assisted one slave woman in her escape.

Further along is "ESCAPE!" a room of placards and recordings offering biographical sketches of some of the foot soldiers who were active in the Railroad. For students of black history, there are familiar names here. One is Sojourner Truth, who fled slavery in New York in 1828 and became one of the best-known orators for the cause of abolition. Tubman is also featured here. John Brown and other whites who were active in the Underground Railroad are also portrayed.

The scope of the center reaches far beyond the sagas of escapees, though. Besides a museum, it's a learning institution, civil rights center and library in which African Americans can trace their heritage.

The centerpiece of the complex is "The Slave Pen," a two-story hewn-log house that Kentucky slave trader John Anderson used to hold slaves in the 1830s. The building, one of the few historical artifacts on display, was donated to the museum by the owner of the land on which it sat. Dismantled and rebuilt here, it's a hallowed place that reduces visitors to a hush.

Underground Railroad: Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio Historical Sites

Explore the Underground Railroad, from Harriet Tubman's birthplace to a stately Philadelphia mansion.  

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