The Black Bucket List: Underground Railroad
Retrace the steps to freedom many escaped slaves made to the North.
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.
My Final Railroad Stop: Brooklyn, N.Y.
This part of New York, rife with the abolition spirit in the mid-19th century, was also an Underground Railroad stronghold.
There, a local guide led me down a rickety set of stairs, through a heavy red door and into a scene that would tug at anyone's heart. We were in the damp, cavernous basement of Brooklyn's Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, used in the 1860s as a holding station for blacks fleeing slavery in the South.
The church's interior is lined with mahogany and decorated with 13 stained glass windows by the renowned designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. The church was founded in 1857 and the congregation quickly staked out a position on the side of racial progress. They sometimes gave the pulpit over to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and other leading abolitionists.
And, according to recent documents, they also sheltered escaped slaves in the tunnels deep beneath the building.
Suddenly caught in the darkness of this stop on the Underground Railroad, I froze, listening to the thump of my heart. Was that someone breathing in the corner? Whose footsteps were those shuffling?
Finally, a ray of light came through a crack in the door.
"That's what it was like to be in the Underground Railroad," my guide explained. "They could taste freedom, but they did not really have it."
Gary Lee is a freelance feature writer specializing in the culture of urban areas in the U.S. and other countries. He is based in Washington, D.C., and can be reached here.
Markers on the Road to Freedom: A Slideshow
Explore the Underground Railroad, from Harriet Tubman's birthplace to a stately Philadelphia mansion.